Plating His Case: Fargione, above, argues that presentation is as important as taste.
Plating His Case: Fargione, above, argues that presentation is as important as taste. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

From a distance, they look like raw steaks on sticks. You can actually see the marbling on every skewered slab of flesh, each one outlined with a thin layer of untrimmed fat. On closer inspection, however, you realize these are not cuts of meat at all but thick slices of densely packed tomatoes streaked with goat cheese and encrusted with strips of roasted eggplant. Teatro Goldoni chef Enzo Fargione calls them tomato popsicles, and they may be the most artful—and delicious—appetizer you’ll ever eat on a stick.

But these apps are more than fine-dining candy. They’re also bright-red signs warning every restaurateur in town that, after an absence of more than two years, Fargione is back, and as chef of this revamped K Street institution, he’s gunning for a prime spot on someone’s—everyone’s?—top restaurant list. I got a feeling he’s going to enter high on the charts, say, No. 8 with a bullet.

Perhaps you think it’s premature to make such a prediction? I’d respond with two pieces of information. First, Fargione’s background: Trained in Turin, the teenage chef worked briefly in San Diego before flying cross-country in 1986 to take part in Roberto Donna’s experiment in regional Italian cooking at Galileo, where Fargione would cook for five years. Still only 22, the chef next took over the staid kitchen at Donna Adele, performing what the Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman called in 1991 a “high-wire act with such a long, varied and complicated menu.” When Fargione walked away from that gig, he again hooked up with Donna to open a few of those once-beloved Il Radicchio spaghetti houses, including one on Capitol Hill that featured the upscale Barolo restaurant upstairs.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Donna, that aging maestro of Italian cooking, has all the cachet of a Palm Pilot these days. How could a 39-year-old acolyte ever hope to compete with chefs producing all those sexy Asian, African, and American-influenced fusion dishes? Well, that’s where the second piece of information comes in: After toying with Italian tapas at an ill-fated-but-respected restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., Fargione has landed what may be his ultimate job. Teatro Goldoni’s new owners, Michael Kosmides and Jose Garcia, have agreed to give Fargione carte blanche in the kitchen—during an economic period when most restaurateurs are looking to cut costs instead.

Fargione has always been an experimenter, dating back at least to his days at Donna Adele. Dig through the archives on Fargione and you’ll find mentions—not all of them flattering, mind you—of saffron spaghetti and porcini tart at Adele or diver scallops encrusted in black pepper at Barolo. And yet, no amount of historical reading can completely prepare you for the tasting menu that Fargione prepares at Teatro: a multi-course meal that starts at $150 per person, including wine pairings.

On a recent Friday, Fargione agreed to let me observe as he prepared a menu for a group of women at his chef’s table. (He did this, I should note, despite recently telling The Hill that journalists are among the people he’d “never want to see in the kitchen.”) One of the first things Fargione revealed was the secret to his tomato popsicles. The treats are actually slices from a large, log-shaped terrine that he makes from organic, vine-ripened tomatoes, goat cheese, and house-smoked strips of eggplant. He serves the lollipops lying on their sides, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and paired with a tiny cube of basil gelatin. For all its modern presentation, the appetizer is also a clever repackaging of two classic Italian flavors—tomato and basil.

His dishes, Fargione tells me, are “more like personal interpretations of Italian cuisine. These are what I feel I should do.”

As an amuse-bouche, Fargione has prepared a small bite of insalata Russa, that cold Italian antipasti with the strangely Russian name. He spoons a dollop of the tuna salad onto a square of gold leaf, which automatically and without warning begins to wrap itself around the bite, as if it were the Venus’ flytrap of precious metals. Fargione then places the little nugget onto a curve-handled spoon and surrounds it with squirts of basil and tomato oils. The ornate, one-bite wonder looks like a blinged-out version of the Italian flag.

To look at Fargione, you wouldn’t necessarily mark him as a chef. He doesn’t have the jolly public persona of his mentor, Donna. Fargione is short, serious, and undeniably fit; his chef’s jacket must be two sizes too large, and yet you can still see his muscular build, the product of his martial arts training, underneath all that fabric. His kitchen certainly has a military precision to it, and Fargione is, without any question, its general. He moves purposefully from the pass to the pasta station, barking out orders in fluent Spanish one minute and conversing in his native Italian the next.

As good as he is with languages, Fargione is far better with food. Simply stated, he’s turning out the most creative Italian dishes I’ve tasted since Fabio Trabocchi hightailed it to New York City. But here’s the thing about Fargione: He doesn’t need costly products to make a statement. For a pasta course, he sautés the most basic of ingredients—chopped shrimp, minced garlic, sliced red pepper, and cherry tomatoes—in a pan of olive oil and fish stock. The shellfish will serve as a filling for his single “open raviolo.” Fargione spoons the filling into a large white bowl, on the bottom of which rests a flat square of squid-ink pasta the color of onyx. As a finishing touch, the chef drapes a square of regular yellow pasta over the top, this one concealing a single stem of flat-leaf parsley between its layers. Save for the squid ink, there’s probably nothing in this gorgeous dish that you couldn’t buy at Safeway.

Fargione maintains this level all night long, often while playing with the very traditions of Italian cuisine. His baked sea bass—with its use of basil, star anise, and dried wild fennel—is a study in licorice flavors. His salt-cured duck breast with blood orange/mascarpone sauce tastes more like prosciutto than gamey bird, and even his soft-shell crab course (no doubt a nod to that holy mantra of local, seasonal) comes with an Italian touch—pieces of the crispy shellfish protrude from a tiny tin of tomato risotto.

And for this meal at least, Fargione is also his own pastry chef, since he hasn’t hired one yet. You’d be hard-pressed to tell; his chocolate “croccante,” with its layers of crispy cornflakes and hazelnut gianduja, is less a variation on almond brittle than it is an Italian take on a Napoleon. The dessert is served with—I kid you not—a “roasted milk” sauce, which Fargione somehow cooks on the griddle. The chef seems almost apologetic about his creation and, at one point, asks me if I know any pastry chef who needs a job.

I tell him I can’t think of a single one.

Teatro Goldoni, 1909 K Street NW, (202)955-9494.

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