Superstar chef Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola in Washington, DC, shares an essential Italian cookbook, his favorite holiday cocktail and the indulgent food gifts he loves to give.
What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
To me the holiday are all about indulging, so maybe this is a little obvious, but I love to give truffles or caviar. They’re both expensive, but you don’t need much of either to feel indulged, and there’s nothing more festive.
I love to give friends a single, fresh, black winter truffle from the Périgord. The French truffle company Plantin always has the best black winter Périgord truffles on the market. They’ve been importing them for so long, they’ve figured out how best to handle them, especially for shipping them abroad. The firmness, the freshness, the aroma, those are all signs of a good truffle. It’s always a good idea to put fresh truffles on top of anything at Christmas, whether it’s shaved truffles on pasta or on an egg cooked sunny-side up with bacon. Black truffles would be perfect, too, in Celery Root and Mushroom Lasagna or Chestnut Soup with Grappa Cream.
For caviar, Russia and Iran are the classic producers, but their output has become so limited, now new countries are starting to make their own. Two companies in California I like are Sterling Caviar and Tsar Nicoulai. There’s also some fantastic caviar coming out of the north of Italy, in Lombardy, called Calvisius. Beluga and osetra sturgeon caviar are traditionally considered the finest, but there are many good alternatives. I love steelhead trout caviar or salmon caviar on Italian crudo, on fresh fish dressed up with a little olive oil and lemon.
But my favorite way to eat caviar is plain, straight from the tin—preferably with a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon. That’s also part of the holiday celebration: We pull out those spoons once a year. I may put a second spoonful on some lightly toasted crusty bread, or oysters. Some people prefer it with a squeeze of lemon or a dab of sour cream. But good caviar all on its own is beyond delicious. The trick is to recognize what’s good, because there’s a lot of bad caviar out there: The texture should never be slick or oily, the eggs should always taste pristine and fresh, never oversalted. They should taste clean and perfectly balanced.
What’s a favorite holiday cocktail or two?
A Manhattan. I first had one when I arrived in the States. I always associate it with the holidays. Even though it’s served chilled, there’s something warming and festive about it. The one we do here at Fiola is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Our bar manager, Jeff Faile, stirs Maker’s Mark, Carpano Antica vermouth and Angostura bitters with ice, then strains the drink into a chilled glass that he coats lightly with the syrup from a jar of Amarena cherries. It’s light and balanced, not too sweet, you can happily get into your second because the first goes down so easily.
What’s one great entertaining tip?
Keep it simple, and stick to familiar dishes that everyone loves. We often want to impress our family with new dishes at the holidays, but sometimes by trying to impress you get a different effect from the one you intended. At the holidays in particular, a relaxing atmosphere is almost more important than the food.
What’s your most popular dish?
Vincisgrassi. It’s the classic Le Marche lasagna. Traditionally the meat ragù is made from offal cuts—sweetbreads, livers, gizzards, coxcombs. The version in my book is much more home-cook friendly, with ingredients people can actually find, like prosciutto and porcini. The only offal in my restaurant version are sweetbreads and foie gras. In Le Marche it’s served year-round; for me, it’s so rich and bold, it’s the perfect fall-winter pasta. It’s got the right balance of sweetness and saltiness. Our béchamel has no flour, only reduced cream, reduced Madeira and chicken stock. Then the ragù is cooked for many hours, until the meat is fork-tender and delicious, with an almost syrupy consistency. I love to serve it with a nice Montepulciano—it’s a wine from the same region, with low tannin so it’s not overwhelming, yet has plenty of character and body.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, by Anna Gosetti della Salda, though unfortunately it’s only in Italian.
We Italians have never codified our cuisine—which is mostly a good thing, since it’s freeing to be able to make your own interpretation of any dish. Take tortellini or tagliatelle: Those are made in Emilia-Romagna, but they’re found throughout Italy. And even within Emilia-Romagna there are countless variations. But this book, which first appeared in 1967 and has been reprinted many times, is considered by many Italian chefs to be their bible. The recipes can be pretty unprofessional, with unhelpful instructions like “add water until it’s enough.” But when it comes to finding out what is real, what is regional, what has been done in certain regions for hundreds of years, the historical explanations, even the local names in the local dialects, this one has it. The only problem: As long as she’s alive, and I think for some time after, it will never be translated into English. The author was interviewed by Food Arts a few years ago and explained why. I also think it needs an Italian eye and brain to read it, because some recipes aren’t as easy to follow. Yet it holds so many original ideas, going back hundreds of years, it’s as authentic as you can imagine.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to season cooking water correctly. To boil pasta, or blanch vegetables or even seafood, seasoning the water is fundamental to locking in flavor, color and texture. But people often don’t add enough salt, if they add any at all. I find 20 to 30 grams of salt (about one to two tablespoons) per liter of water is the right amount.
Why Because his menu pits Italian classics against more progressive interpretationsand both sides win.
Born Osimo, Italy, 1974.
Education Istituto Alberghiero Panzini, Senigallia, Italy.
Experience Floriana and Grissini, London; Bice restaurants, Marbella, Spain, and Washington, D.C.
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget Alain Ducasse's restaurants in Paris or Monte Carlo. "Ducasse is our leader in terms of what a chef can achieve in the 21st century."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget "I would give it to my wife and she would make a Spanish tortillathe best one in the world."
Bedside reading De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman merchant and gourmet in the first century A.D. "It's surprising to learn that ancient Romans were eating foie gras with figsstuff we eat today."
Biggest culinary influence The Marches region of Italy, where he grew up. "We have the sea in front of us and mountains in our backyard."
About his recipe To make sure the capellini with clams and caviar is perfect, Trabocchi suggests rolling the pasta in a towel after draining it. "That way, when you toss the pasta with the other ingredients, the dish won't end up watery."
Won Best New Chef at: Maestro, McLean, VA