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Sicilian cassata with vanilla meringue and strawberry Campari sorbetto

Le Marche of Time

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | October 28, 2013

When award-winning chef Fabio Trabocchi decided to open Casa Luca, the second restaurant in his nascent restaurant empire, the idea was to move away from the recherché refinement of his highly acclaimed Penn Quarter restaurant, Fiola (his third restaurant, Fiola Mare, opens on the Georgetown waterfront in early 2014). Keeping it rural was what he and his Spanish-born wife, Maria, intended, paying homage to the food and family traditions of the chef’s native region, Le Marche, on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

But here’s the thing: Try as they may to be casual, the Trabocchis can’t escape elegance; it’s just not in them. They took over the gloomy Againn space on 11th Street and brought light into it by opening up the room and using different wall treatments: crackled antique white paint on some, others the color of burnt sunset (the leather upholstery, too) or covered with bright white subway tiles.

The decor is rustic chic writ large. The giant, bell-shaped, handblown glass pendant lights that illuminate the window tables have a nautical feel; Maria had them made especially for Casa Luca on the island of Mallorca, her homeland. Other pendants are made from enormous white Italian linen lampshades imprinted with the Casa Luca logo. Luca, by the way, is the name of the Trabocchis’ 10-year-old son, who is often sighted working in the restaurant’s kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights. Large photos of Fabio and Maria’s families, most of them black-and-white, lend a personal touch, even if you might have the chef’s grandmother smiling over your shoulder while you eat.

Servers in stylized uniforms—burgundy-checked shirts, ties, brown vests and long white aprons—deliver the goods, both in terms of service and food. A cursory look at the menu indicates that Casa Luca is no ordinary trattoria, especially when you order the Marche-inspired breads offered. Crescia, a grilled, flaky flatbread enriched with lard, comes to your table by smell first. It’s warm, rich and irresistible. Chichi is two crispy thin slices of flatbread that sandwich spicy sausage and roasted peppers. A cheese-filled brioche-like loaf served on a cutting board with a knife brings to mind my mother’s admonition from years ago: “Don’t fill up on bread!”

The selections of piccoletti (small bites) are really appetizer-size. Lightly dressed smoked farro—with chunks of lobster and artichoke—is a heavenly balance of smoke, sweetness and earthiness. Delicate veal meatballs and sugo finto are, rightly so, a Fabio signature dish.

A smarter strategy is to order the Luca antipasto misto platter for two, especially if you’re four. It’s a board of luxurious Italian salumi, cheeses and little salads. There were even lamb chops on this platter one night.

Ordering pasta is de rigueur at Casa Luca. They are made in-house, and I’ve not had a clunker yet. Fusilli with sheep’s milk cacio cheese, burrata, loads of freshly ground black pepper and basil has been described as “macaroni and cheese for grown-ups.” Tortelloni filled with porchetta, tossed in brown butter and topped with chanterelles and walnuts are perfect foils for a crisp fall night.

My recommendation is to split an order of pasta (or ask for two different half-orders) and then split one of the entrees. The lemon breaded, pan-roasted monkfish is brought to the table whole in a copper pan, presented to the table, filleted and plated in a pool of dill-and-lemon-laced tomato sauce with capers and artichokes quartered lengthwise. It’s a robust sauce that holds up nicely to the chewy texture of the fish. A pork chop dish is named after the chef’s father, Giuseppe Trabocchi, who hailed from a long line of sharecropping farmers who no doubt liked to eat with gusto. The grilled chop, spread with garlic puree, is sometimes presented in a cast-iron casserole perched on a cutting board. The pork is at least an inch thick and is topped with grilled sausage and triangular slices of barilotto, a salted ricotta cheese. Fried artichokes surround the dish, which also makes a great breakfast, as you are likely to discover.

Via the hands of Pastry Chef Tom Wellings, Fabio is able to recapture the desserts of his childhood and repackage them with finesse and flair. The affogato, usually a yawn in other restaurants, sings here as a brownie sundae with a buzz—vanilla gelato, chunks of chocolate torte, varnelli mocha espresso sauce and hazelnut croccante. A piedmontese bonet (espresso/chocolate custard) is as silken as the finest creme brulee, but the chewy almond ricciarelli cookies next to it are nuggets of pure pleasure. The Casa Luca version of an ice cream sandwich is a warm brioche sphere filled with your homemade gelato of choice. (Caramel, please!)

Make one of your dessert choices the ciambellone di nonna. It’s a hazelnut coffee cake served with caramel gelato and vincotto. Eat the gelato and—you guessed it—take the coffee cake home. It’ll perfectly accompany that pork chop.

The Chef’s Specials
Vegetarians will champion the menu’s hearty, cheesy eggplant parmigiana on Mondays; seafood fans will gush over lobster risotto on Tuesdays or steamed mussels on Fridays; and carnivores will adore braised short ribs on Wednesdays or the splendid sage- and garlic-tinged porchetta on Thursdays.

Cocktails
The libation program at Casa Luca was bound to be a hit in the hands of mixologist Jeff Faile. Case in point: For a cocktail called Il Palio, Faile makes his own Campari ice cubes to cool the bourbon, Cocchi vermouth and orange bitters. Also clever: excellent on-tap wines (prosecco, pinot grigio, sangiovese, cabernet) made exclusively for Casa Luca by Italian winemaker Lia Tolaini-Banville.

Casa Luca
1099 New York Ave. NW, 202.628.1099, casalucadc.com

Antipasti: $8-$16
Pastas and entrees: $18-$30
Desserts: $6-$10

Mon.-Thu.: 11am-10:30pm; Fri.: 11am-11pm; Sat.: 5-11pm; Sun: 4-9pm