A Star Chef’s Italian Christmas
Fabio Trabocchi, the star chef of New York City’s Fiamma, did not grow up in a wealthy family. His father was a farmer–turned–truck driver, and the family lived in Marche, a remote region of Italy between the Umbrian Apennine mountains and the Adriatic coast. When Trabocchi was a boy, his entire wardrobe consisted of three shirts and three pairs of pants. But the family never stinted on Christmas, and Trabocchi can remember the holiday meals of his childhood in detail.
“A few days before Christmas, we would go from farm to farm to collect the ingredients we needed from family friends, who would set aside food for us—from the mushrooms and the eggs for the lasagna to the pork rib roast,” recalls Trabocchi (an F&W Best New Chef 2002). “I was always the first one to jump into the car to go shopping.”
© John Kernick
Today, Trabocchi gets his pork from Virginia farmer Bev Eggleston, but he still marinates it in citrus, bay leaves and juniper, just as his father always did. Indeed, many of the courses at Trabocchi’s Christmas celebrations are the same dishes he had as a child, including fennel gratin in a Parmigiano-Reggiano cream sauce (fennel grew wild in Marche) and sweet-and-sour cipollini onions glazed with balsamic vinegar.
Trabocchi’s rise as a chef is due as much to hard work as to enormous talent. He began studying at a hotel and cooking school at age 15, taking a job at a pastry shop on weekends. “I’m the guy who had to crack a thousand eggs into a big bowl or roll a thousand croissants by hand,” he says.
At 21, he came to the United States to open Bice Ristorante in Washington, DC. It was there that he met his wife, Maria, the daughter of a Spanish diplomat, with whom he now has two children, Alice and Luca. He was not, he remembers, the easiest young man to be around.
“I was like a bull in a china shop—anxious to succeed, afraid of not making it,” Trabocchi says. “That translated into being aggressive, temperamental. I worked 17 hours a day, screaming like crazy. For the first six months, I did not take a day off.”
Meeting Maria tempered Trabocchi’s aggressiveness. “We just clicked,” he says. “I think the first night we went out, I said, ‘Why don’t you stay here with me?’ We’ve lived together ever since.” He adds, “For me, she’s very important, not only because I love her but because she brings a lot of balance to my life.”
© John Kernick
Maria remembers a man who might have been a terror in the kitchen but was quite different outside of it: “He was extremely shy. He looked so young that I had to buy him drinks. So quiet. I could see the soul behind his eyes. It’s not just that he was cute—I wanted to know who was behind those eyes. And I found someone who is very creative and funny. Very caring, very giving.”
After Bice, Trabocchi opened Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in McLean, Virginia, where he spent seven years cooking fresh and inventive Italian-inflected dishes. In 2007, he moved to New York City to revamp Fiamma, a sophisticated and high-style Italian restaurant, with dishes such as a sculptural wagyu beef carpaccio and tartare with Parmigiano-Reggiano. His family didn’t follow him until this year, though, so this is their first Christmas in New York.
Alice is carrying a new doll, which has blonde hair that mimics her own. “Daddy bought it,” she says. Daddy, who has taken a break from cooking, quietly amends this. He had to call in the expert, Maria, he says; in the realm of dolls, he is lost.
© John Kernick
Back in the kitchen, however, Trabocchi works assuredly and at lightning speed. After preparing crostini with roasted root vegetables and melted Fontina cheese, he serves a pureed chestnut soup with a dollop of grappa cream, the first dish he made for his family when he began cooking school. His father thought it was weird until he tasted it, Trabocchi says, and it has since become a family tradition. He also bakes a celery root and mushroom lasagna with Marsala cream sauce, his luxurious, modernized version of the classic offal lasagna of Marche. “Occasionally we would embellish it with black truffles, because where I come from, there were black truffles everywhere,” he says.
At the end of the meal, after the pork roast and all the side dishes, Trabocchi always serves one non-Italian sweet: polvorones, Spanish almond cookies that are part of his wife’s Christmas memories. “They’re traditionally made with pork fat,” he says. “I know it sounds strange, but they’re really very good. For her, it is not Christmas without these cookies.”
Maria admits this is so: “I sometimes have to invite someone from Spain to Christmas so I can ask the guest to bring polvorones,” she says. One year, the family was in London for the holidays and couldn’t find any. Trabocchi developed his own recipe, “so Maria can’t complain that I didn’t find the polvorones that one Christmas.” From the affectionate looks Maria gives him, it’s clear that all is forgiven.
Joyce Wadler is a reporter at the New York Times.