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When chef Fabrizio Aielli peers between the thick celadon stripes painted onto the glass fronting his kitchen at Teatro Goldoni, he witnesses what my girlfriend likens to a scene from a Dr. Seuss story. Sheets of crackery flat bread are puffed with air and stuck like jib sheets into baskets that contain, among other things, chocolate-chip bread. Over there, a waiter decants a bottle of wine the size of a kindergartner; over here, a diner inspects a plate containing Parmesan crisps seemingly suspended in midair. “Where’s the tomato?” she asks. “I thought I ordered something called crispy tomato.” Some dishes arrive as miniature towers on plates slicked with sauces that look to have been squeezed from exobiological fruits. Other victuals—say, the red-beet-and-honey sorbet—are served in deep oblong bowls. Green eggs and ham are nowhere to be found, but they’re within the realm of possibility.
There’s something jovial to the sleekness of Teatro. A diamond pattern reminiscent of a jester’s cap pops up everywhere you look: on the backs of rounded booths big enough to bear-hug a party of six, on the partitions separating the two front dining rooms, in the metal grid holding a collection of theatrical masks, on the rims of plates, on menu covers, in the lines on the upward-facing skin of pan-seared black sea bass. The kitchen is a performance space just as surely as it’s a work station: In addition to the dining rooms in the front, there’s a private room that wraps around the kitchen’s rear. There are few places for these actors to hide. It’s theater in the round.
Aielli is big on drama—a fact he makes plain with the name of his new restaurant. The chef earned fame and a bunch of top-shelf write-ups with the original Goldoni in Foggy Bottom, a majestic restaurant with a sexy wine stock that fell prey to development and moved downtown. I haven’t seen any evidence that Aielli’s food, most of it a highly eccentric—some might say too eccentric—take on traditional Italian, went south in the relocation. But the old place, which devoted a good percentage of square footage to the space over diners’ heads, was a much better environment for nibbling on the fruits of the chef’s narcissism. At the Goldoni on 20th Street NW, the details on the plate—with Aielli, the details always demand attention—get overshadowed by the grip-and-grin din of downtown, where the restaurant has become ideal for business lunches, mostly because the food is expensive and freaky enough to lend importance to affairs that need it.
As our waiter explains, Teatro, which opened on K Street NW a month and a half ago, was conceived as a forum for Aielli to experiment. “The food here is much less traditional than at Goldoni,” he remarks, as if roasted guinea hen in grappa-and-chestnut sauce, a somewhat typical Goldoni dish, were old hat. Indeed, the Aielli of Teatro manages to outinvent the already maddeningly inventive Aielli of Goldoni, the surprise being that the end results are frequently not maddening at all.
Teatro’s menu is a wild, somewhat unappetizing read—nothing puts me in the mood for a hamburger as quickly as reading descriptions of dishes that never quit. Yet more often than not, Aielli gets me to buy into his schemes. Dip into his crab-and-lobster-cake appetizer and you’ll find a rubble pile of succulent meat loosely bound, slicked with cream, and mounted on an eggplant round. The shellfish cake, even with its streaks of roasted pepper-and-chive sauce, is a low-maintenance production compared with the previously mentioned napoleon of tomato built on planks of Parmesan with shrimp and asparagus spears. Complicated further by bits of black truffle and a bright yellow saffron sauce, it’s the kind of dish that could appear as a joke in a movie about ’80s L.A.
Aielli’s talents are better served when he’s not trying so hard to awe. A salad of sliced endive, walnuts, and Taleggio cheese coated in a decadent honey-truffle dressing is simple (for him, anyway) and delicious, as is a thick and earthy porcini soup that holds a trio of bread gnocchi. As a special, Aielli serves belon oysters tricked up with trout roe, diced cucumbers, and a dash of rice vinegar and olive oil. It’s a stunning way to start a meal, and a lot less involved than it sounds; the salty roe matches the taste of sea in the flesh, the cucumbers lend a touch of fresh water, and the rice vinegar is basically a mignonette with an Asian accent.
As you may have guessed, Teatro’s food doesn’t come cheap (entrees hover around $20, starters around $10), and, given what’s involved in its preparation, it shouldn’t. Getting your money’s worth depends on what you order. There’s always the danger of putting yourself at the mercy of the chef’s indecisiveness. Aielli stuffs agnolotti with potatoes, skate wing, and cabbage, then smothers it in two sauces—one made with saffron, the other an amarone wine reduction. By my count, that’s five potentially interesting dishes inharmoniously fused into one. Such wanton chemistry can cause one to fear that the masterstrokes are accidental, but you have to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. The man behind a plate of crab-meat-crusted mahi mahi that siphons perfume from roasted fennel and sweetness from a sauce of olives and mint could teach a calculus-level course on pairing flavors. It’s been two weeks since I tried Aielli’s sorbets—carrot-and-grapefruit and the one with beets—and I’m still wondering if he had to cut a deal with God to make them work.
Aielli clearly views himself as a kind of performer, and the paradox of his approach is that he marginalizes himself in his relentless quest for approval. The guy’s got talent enough to auction off, and he’s tough to beat when he’s reining himself in: The morel- and shrimp-topped sea bass that he lays on a bed of root-vegetable puree is a hiccup finer than great French bistro fare, and no one in town is better at rendering lean Argentine beef butter-knife tender. During lunch, Teatro offers an array of grill items (including vegetarian) served with basic sides like polenta and crispy potatoes. It’s enough to make me wish that the chef would re-imagine how he puts his boundless imagination to use. I’d pay double what he’s charging at Teatro to eat at a restaurant in which Aielli played the part of an Italian grandmother.
Teatro Goldoni, 1909 K St. NW, (202) 955-9494.
One reader, having recently been disowned by a family that doesn’t approve of her choice in bedmates, hails the reopening of Trattu as “the only thing I have to be thankful for this holiday season.” Good thing that Trattu, tucked into a sub-basement on Jefferson Place NW, is a perky place that specializes in hearty Italian fare. The restaurant’s veal scaloppine, spiked with sage, draped in prosciutto, and cooked in butter and white wine, is a fair enough approximation of home if you don’t have one to go to.
Trattu, 1823 Jefferson Place NW, (202) 452-4960.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.