Gun-shy to “fine-dining” Italian outside of New York and a few select spots elsewhere I had originally planned to conclude our myriad lunches in the DC area with Korean or Ethiopian food – I had considered this until a trusted gourmand suggested that the Northern Italian fare of Massimo Fabbri at Ristorante Tosca was the best he’d ever had in the US and on par with all but the best of Italy. A fan moreso of pasta and antipasti than secondi in Italian dining I was additionally intrigued by seasonal menu of hand made pastas with focus on local ingredients and Fabbri’s creative interpretations of classic Italian dishes. With the restaurant located in Penn Quarter just steps from other destinations on our day’s agenda Tosca seemed ideal.
Arriving moments early for our noon reservation we entered Tosca and instantly felt underdressed for the occasion. An eggshell white interior, white table cloths, beige carpets – the whole restaurant felt serene in its monochromatic presentation, yet unfussy with lively colored prints lining the walls. Similarly monochromatic were the well suited businessmen filling the tables to capacity and the tuxedoed waiters standing in attention. Greeted by the young receptionist I was grateful to not feel judged – as a matter of fact she was quite pleasant and led us to a fine table in the middle of the main dining room. Water choices offered (still vs. sparkling) we opted for still. Moments later our waiter would arrive with menus and a description of the daily specials – left to decide I suddenly found myself with quite a dilemma – there were at least fifteen things I wanted to try.
Browsing the menu and debating the best way to try as many dishes as possible we were surprised when the bread service appeared along with iced tea for my mother and aunt. A stellar basket paired with a smooth and nearly citrus olive oil we were treated to warm Ciabatta, Sourdough, and Whole Wheat in the first basket with a second basket arriving later containing a Rosemary Garlic Bread, Olive Sourdough, and more Ciabatta. Crusty and well prepared the bread service at Tosca was perhaps the best I experienced on my drip to DC – the Olive Oil, too, was excellent. With orders placed we sat back and awaited our main courses while browsing the room – normally a well dressed individual the number of tailored suits made me self conscious despite a short sleeved buttoned shirt and slacks, but again, that was on me not the restaurant (I’d still wear a suit if I were to return.)
Arriving first, along with our second bread basket, was my appetizer - Molecche di baia in crosta di farina integrale con ragu di pisellini, aglio orsino e fagiolini “cera” or Soft shell crab in a whole wheat crust, with sautéed English peas, ramps and yellow wax beans. Split as compared to the whole preparations at Eve and CityZen the crab was once again beautiful, clean, and sweet. Paired with a buttery lemon emulsion that I drizzled gingerly over the crustacean the effect of the sweet peas, vegetal beans, and pungent ramps came to life. While certainly a more traditional presentation of softshell than the others, the flavor was excellent.
Arriving after approximately 20 minutes (and more bread) was a parade of three pastas and one risotto. The first, Tagliatelle al nero di seppia con polpa di granchio, carciofi e aglio arrosto (Black ink tagliatelle with jumbo crab lump meat ragu, artichokes and roasted garlic) was ordered by my sister and it was the showstopper in terms of presentation and color palate. Al dente, mildly salty and thick the pasta was fantastic – pairing it with the sweet white crab flesh, golden garlic, crispy green artichokes, and acidic rouge tomatoes – fresh, simple, and all the better for it.
Continuing the trend of using top notch ingredients in simple complementary manners was Gnocchi di ricotta e patate con ragu di Luganega, Pecorino e pomodorini al forno (Ricotta gnocchi with Luganega sausage, oven dried cherry tomatoes, Pecorino cheese and black pepper.) A fan of gnocchi I’d planned to order this dish until my aunt did so – thankfully she can never finish a dish and I got my fill. Fluffy pillows of potato that gave to the simple pressure of the tongue the gnocchi were amongst the best I’ve ever had. Pairing the delicate dumplings with the mild pork cheek sausage, acidic tomatoes, and savory cheese plus black pepper cracked tableside added a bit of spice and nuance but overall the flavor profile was that of a pork ragu.
For mother, Risotto con aragosta, basilico e ricotta fatta in casa (Risotto with lobster, basil and house made ricotta cheese.) What the dish lacked in presentation, essentially orange on orange with flecks of green, it made up for in flavor and texture. Crisp, buttery, snappy lobster paired with creamy, toothsome, and smooth risotto – perhaps the simplest dish of the afternoon but also perhaps the most decadent.
For my order I opted to go with Fabbri’s signature, the Pappardelle alla carota biologica con ragu di coniglio locale e timo fresco (Carrot flavored pappardelle with a rabbit ragu in a white wine sauce and fresh thyme.) With hand cut pasta full of bounce and texture providing only minimal resistance to mastication the flavor of carrot was there, but subtle. Served over top the pappardelle was a savory ragu of chopped rabbit saddle, braised in wine and thyme plus a dollop of olive oil. Light yet flavorful with the characteristic gamey flavor of rabbit balanced beautifully by the sweetened wine and aromatic thyme – a dish worthy of the title “signature” to say the least.
The only logical answer to the question “can I interest you in something sweet” after such fantastic pastas was “absolutely.” Browsing the menu again led to indecision given the number of excellent options and we once again settled it by each ordering something different. First, for my mother, the Crostata di rababraro e fragole con semifreddo ai limoni Meyer a salsa ai pistacchi (Strawberry and rhubarb crostata with Meyer lemon semifreddo and pistachio sauce.) While I personally would have never ordered this dish, my mother loves both lemon and rhubarb and as such this was a must. A sizable tart – fibrous and tangy with a buttery crust – sat adjacent to a lovely and smooth whipped lemon cream, the two divided by a line tasting akin to pistachio pudding. Dissimilar tastes yet impressively paired – it was good, and mom loved it.
My aunt’s selection was Tart tatin alla banana con gelato alla crema acida e salsa alla nutella (Banana tart tatin with crème fraiche ice cream and nutella sauce) and, to be fair, I’m pretty sure there was no “tart” to be found. Featuring well ripened bananas caramelized in a sauce of chocolate and hazelnut the plated circle of banana sat above a creamy banana pudding studded with vanilla cookie. Topping the “tart” in addition to the nutella sauce was a smooth and tangy ice cream, light in flavor but weighty in texture.
Figuring my sister would order the Tiramisu I was surprised when she instead opted for the Tortino al cioccolato caldo con granita alle mirtilli, mirtilli canditi e panna montata (Warm chocolate cake with blueberry granita, sugared blueberries and whipped cream) but as it turns out, she ordered the best dessert of the meal. While the concept of lava cake seems tried and tired to me, this version was different – more a disk of dark chocolate with a crispy exterior and an interior fluffy like a croissant. Light, the cake paired wonderfully with the icy blueberries and pillow of whipped cream.
With Erika opting to forgo the Tiramisu my choice was easy – it was again Chef Fabbri’s signature dish, the Tiramisu tiepido moderno (Chef's modernized tiramisu.) Served in a glass the dish went layer by layer – good, great, fantastic. A creamy rum pudding dusted with cocoa atop, espresso-laden ladyfingers beneath, creamy and chilled mascarpone at the base. With chunks of chocolate strewn within for texture and the unique design preventing the pooling of alcohol that often mars such presentations the texture was familiar yet dynamic – classic, yet inspired.
Paying the tab we walked out of Tosca full and tremendously happy – my family because they love Italian, myself because I’d found another great fine dining Italian spot to add to a short list. Some call it an expense account lunch - I call it every bit worth the price. Fantastic pastas, clever and unique desserts, superior service, a pleasant setting, and great memories with family – even if everyone else in the room is talking business and going back to work in an hour.…in my opinion that is what Italian food is all about.