Chefs You Should Know

Chef Fabio Trabocchi on Italian Cooking, Perfect Gnocchi and Venice’s Artisan Flair

Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s love of food came from his father and from being raised in an idyllic Italian coastal town where he was introduced to both the fruits of the land and the Adriatic Sea.

“I was the son of a former farmer, and for us, the quality of product coming from farmers was always a big thing in our diet, in our family meals, in our feasts on Sundays or long, long lunches, as you can imagine an Italian family would do,” says Trabocchi, whose early appreciation for food would lead him to become a James Beard Award–winning chef and the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Trabocchi’s highly regarded Italian restaurant, Fiola, earned a Michelin star for his stylish showcase of high-quality ingredients and the Italian traditions he knows so well, as seen in decadent dishes likely to feature foie gras or black truffle. It’s the crown jewel in a growing collection of restaurants, all of which highlight the same hyper attentiveness to fresh, seasonal ingredients.

venice food and wine festival
The chef at work in his kitchen. (Photo: Courtesy of Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants)

Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Trabocchi at Fiola Mare, the third of his five restaurants, this one specializing in the Italian coastal cuisine he grew up eating, transplanted to the Georgetown Waterfront. We talk about his role as a featured chef at the Venice Food & Wine Festival, hosted at the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa from May 3 – 6, 2018, and all the delicacies and intricacies of Venetian culture and cuisine.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

How did growing up in Italy on the Adriatic Coast influence the chef that you are today?

So, seafood is very important, as much as the inland product. In the early stage of my life, I learned how to get the right tomato ripe, get the basil when it’s best to get it, getting the strawberries when it’s early spring … peaches in the summer and chestnuts in the winters and everything that goes along with [the seasons], which is really the lifestyle of Italians …

Eventually it became my profession, and I was thrown into it. [For] my father, you know, eating habits were very, very important to him, and he loved cooking, and he loved to select ingredients carefully and so, indirectly, his education became eventually my profession.

What I love about Italian cooking is that it can always be defined by the quality of its product.

What dish did you learn to master early on?

Well, you know, it’s more of a craft and a skill than an actual dish … but my dad was in love with making gnocchi. As you can imagine an Italian family could be. So mastering gnocchi, for me, was very important, and eventually I did.

We were looking for the right balance of lightness yet firm, just enough that it holds any heat and temperature, and mastering that technique for me was very, very important. Eventually it became a staple in all of our restaurants today. But it started really at home.

Do you have an early favorite travel memory that you shared with your father or family?

In my teens, we were driving up the Adriatic coast and taking basically a U-turn into the former Yugoslavia then. So, we are past Venice on the other side. And doing that by car, you really are doing a drive on the coastline of all the Adriatic Sea.

And stopping into small little grill restaurants by the water and having the most amazing grilled calamari — really, you can see the boat approaching the restaurant and dropping calamari almost alive. It was one of my most deep early memories of great food.

I remember having this in the very, very simple [places], you know, tables and chairs with very simple tabletops and so forth, and those are not meant to be real restaurants. They are places where you stop because you’re having a long drive, yet the food was absolutely amazing, and the very first taste of that, it’s what … I didn’t stop eating … . Certainly, the setting and the view helped a lot.

venice food and wine festival
Chef Trabocchi speaks with Robin Bennefield, managing editor of Marriott TRAVELER. (Photo: Michael Hess)

How do you define Italian cooking? Is it the pasta? What makes it distinct from any other style of cooking?

It is definitely pasta. Pasta is a big thing in every Italian household, and it’s a very big part of our culture. Every little town in Italy has [its own] shapes for pasta and different names because it comes from that town, even though it’s the same shape of the town two miles down the street or down the road.

But what is Italian cooking? Italian cooking is also the result of climate, of livestock, agriculture … . The cooking of the north is different than the cooking of the center or the south. It’s also the many, many other cultures that we’ve been dominated by over centuries. We have Arabic influence from the south. We have French, Spanish influences in the north.

It’s a very, very, very 360-degrees diet, OK? We have a coastal cuisine culture. We have an inland cuisine culture. We have hunting traditions and so forth. We have a love for truffles, OK, but also we have everything that we can possibly grow, from oranges to tomato to artichoke to eggplant, zucchini, squash blossoms and so forth.

What I love about Italian cooking is that it can always be defined by the quality of its product, and not much needs to be done to it to be excellent.

What I love about the cooking from Venice is the straightforwardness, the love for seafood, which is also my personal love.

So, you’re talking about the different regions of Italy, and you will be in Venice for the Venice Food & Wine Festival at the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa. Tell me about the cuisine in Venice. What makes it different from other parts of Italy?

Venice was a port where there were a lot of the influences of product and spices from other parts of the world, including the Middle Eastern part of the world and so forth. Therefore, they got exposed to many other different cultures and food habits. It’s a very Italian cooking, don’t get me wrong, but because of that, they have had a big cultural exchange with many other [countries] for centuries.

What I love about the cooking from Venice is the straightforwardness, the love for seafood, which is also my personal love. It’s one of my favorite things that I like to cook, seafood in general. Sometimes I like not to cook it at all because it’s so good it can be also consumed raw, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually very nice.

Venice has a simple coastal cuisine … and inland cuisine, just like the cooking of my region. And those are really the things that I like the most.

Is there a Venetian dish that you’re especially looking forward to? Something that you are craving and have to have?

Well, there’s the love for crab, OK? And the way crab, one in particular is called moleche, which is a very tiny soft-shell-like type of crab that will probably be in while we are doing the festival. And that’s probably something that I’m really looking forward to cooking because I haven’t seen this besides being in Italy in a very long time. I can’t wait for that.

There is also a little bit more of an inland pasta they do in an extruder — its called bigoli — that comes from a press and [is] done with a traditional Venetian-style duck ragu. That’s something that I’m really looking forward to, too.

venice food and wine festival
Chef Trabocchi preparing plates in his D.C. restaurant. (Photo: Courtesy of Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants)

If you’re a first-timer in Venice, what are some things that you absolutely have to experience, from your perspective?

I remember my first time. I wish I could’ve double or tripled the stay to really appreciate the beauty of Venice. You know, Italy is Italy, and there’s a lot of beautiful [places in] Italy, but Venice is beautiful on its own. You get transported into something that is extremely unique: the setting, the vibe, the artisan flair.

It’s almost going into a little separate world that happens to be part of Italy, OK? But it’s Venice … Every corner of Venice is a small discovery, every street, every person, every little trattoria, every small restaurant, and everything that is also in a big, majestic, luxurious restaurant. And of course, all of the art of Venice. And the love for glass-making in Murano and so forth. There is no city like Venice, in my opinion, anywhere else in the world.

Every corner of Venice is a small discovery, every street, every person, every little trattoria.

You’ll be creating a special meal for guests at the Venice Food & Wine Festival. What can guests expect?

So I wanted to somehow filter as much as possible, as a true Italian, the culture of Venice, and that will be incorporated in the menu that night. Starting with small bites, which in Venice are called ciccetti — a wonderful appetizer, a great risotto dish.

Venice [was influenced] by rice, and risotto in particular. We’ll finish an with entrée, and also I’m trying to bring a nostalgic dessert from the past of the area of Venice so that everybody can feel the ties and the attachment to something that is very comforting. I want this to be an extension of a few hours of tasting, where they actually are in that moment in life, which is Venice.

We [are] also going to do the gnocchi mastering. This is coming back again, you know, I’m open to share that with the people there and share my technique over the years of how to make good gnocchi. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are certain rules that I think everybody can embrace.

And then we’re also going to do another class about caviar. This is an Italian caviar that is made not too far from Venice by a very serious company called Calvisius under the Agroittica Lombarda, which is almost a conservatory area for sturgeon to live where they are harvesting their caviar.

So it will be a great, great, great weekend.

The Menu for Fabio Trabocchi’s Signature Dinner

i. Grande Crudo Veneziano / Grand Raw Seafood Platter

ii. Risotto alla Graneola con Caviale / Crab Risotto with Caviar

iii. Spigola al Nero di Seppia / Steamed Line-Caught Mediterranean Branzino in a Squid Ink Sauce

iv. Storione al Alloro, Fegato Grasso e Amarone / Sturgeon Baked in White Wine and Fresh Bay Leaves with Foie Gras and Amarone Sauce

v. Dolce di Buon Ricordo: Crema Fritta, Gelato al Torcolato con Fragole, e Bussola Vicentina / Fried Pastry Cream, Torcolato Wine Gelato with Macerated Strawberries, and Vicenza Traditional Coffee Cake

The JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa hosted a weekend of exclusive events, showcasing the finest Italian cuisine, wine and spirits at the Venice Food & Wine Festival, May 3-6, 2018. The event has ended.

Where to Stay: