‘I Put Fabio’s Magic Into Play’
Timing is everything, and it was off one night at Fiola Mare as a server delivered celebratory Champagne to the happy couple—before the man had proposed. Maria Trabocchi caught the woman’s confused look and didn’t miss a beat.
‘I ran over with a bottle and I said to her, ‘Hi, this is my restaurant, and today I’m going to do Champagne for the entire row!’ She didn’t guess the proposal was coming at all, and afterward she was laughing and said, ‘I had no idea; you’re so good.’ My job is being there and owning the moment; how are we going to make this better or fix it?’
For every signature seafood tower and unparalleled waterfront view, it’s this acute attention to the customers that formed the foundation of Fiola Mare’s success. As owner and partner with husband and Chef Fabio Trabocchi, Maria has helmed those efforts.
‘I feel like it’s a special night every night at the restaurant. I try to identify a few customers who have never been before and I go and I try to make their night. Not to go to the usual—the ambassador of whatever—but to go to the random little table and be like, ‘Hey how are you?’ and offer them a glass of Champagne. I can also tell the people who have been saving to come to the restaurant, and I reward them if I can. There are so many options in DC and I’m very grateful that they choose us to celebrate.’
Twenty-five years prior, it was a small celebration that set the restaurant in motion.
Born to a Spanish diplomat, Maria and her family moved to DC for her father’s career. One night in the mid-90s, a friend invited her to his restaurant, BiCE, in Penn Quarter. Never one to refuse a free meal, Maria joined 10 or 15 others. There, she was introduced to their new chef, Fabio Trabocchi.
‘I was in shock because my image of a chef was always this grumpy guy, normally French. Then I see this good looking, young, Italian, tan, perfectly dressed man. I was like that cannot be a chef! We started talking and he didn’t know anyone in the city, and I started seeing him at other places we would go.’
They eventually married and started a family, following opportunities in Spain, London, and New York. Fabio gained significant notoriety—named Chef of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and earning both a James Beard Award and Michelin star by 2009—but the recession shuttered the New York restaurant where he’d found acclaim.
With a long-held dream of opening his own restaurant, Fabio decided to make a go of it in DC—fortuitously taking over the BiCE space.
‘I always was like who would want to own a restaurant, it’s so hard. It looks like you have no life. It’s such an intense thing, but Fabio really liked it and was very proud of everything. I was very proud of him too, but I couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind could want to do that for a living when there were other ways to make more money and go out to dinner instead of making it for other people.’
Maria had no experience working in a restaurant, but knew Fabio couldn’t do it without her help. The morning of Fiola’s 2011 debut, she threw up from nerves.
‘I had no idea what I was getting myself into and this was a big risk. At this moment in time, we were responsible for X amount of money and employees. I really freaked out, but I’m Fabio’s biggest fan. I would do it all over again but it was scary. I didn’t know if I had the talent to do my job. I didn’t know what my job was.’
She did, and she figured it out.
Maria wore many hats in the early years, from accounting to hiring, marketing, and PR. She was on the floor every day for lunch and dinner, often opening the restaurant and closing it at 2 or 3 am. By 8 the next morning, she was driving her kids to school, picking them up during lunch and dropping them off at the babysitter before returning to the restaurant.
‘It was very demanding physically. I remember going home and almost crying I was so exhausted. I had to look the part, too. I was always dressing up very well. I felt like to work in my restaurant, I wanted to look like I was going to eat there.’
Despite the exhaustion, the Trabocchis found their stride—Maria easily connecting with customers while Fabio ran the back of house. After just three years, they opened their second restaurant, Fiola Mare, on the Georgetown waterfront.
The Italian seafood restaurant honors Fabio’s heritage, with inspiration from Maria’s native Spain. The menu has evolved over the years—each dish deeply personal.
‘Fabio is constantly researching and looking at history because every ingredient has a story and every dish he tries when he travels, something brings him back home in a certain way. Or even in my country with the Spanish restaurants. Everything we do, every name we choose, it’s something related to us or our culture.’
With five additional restaurants in their portfolio—and another opening this summer in Rosslyn—Maria says each is like one of their children, and all of them are different.
What does ring true throughout is the same care and attention. It starts from the top, with a work philosophy Maria and Fabio share, and pass on to their staff. Maria says it’s important to invest in that training in order to meet rising demands.
‘The expectation is no doubt very high, from the customer side, and from the media. I don’t think they treat us the same as they treat everyone else. The expectation is always more and better, which is sometimes unfair, but it’s OK too, because we’re very demanding on ourselves. That means continuing to be relevant, do the right thing, and listen.’
When Fiola opened, the restaurant was intended to serve as a casual, recession-friendly trattoria. Much to the Trabocchi’s surprise, customers wanted more from them—arriving in suits to celebrate big anniversaries. They took notice, and adapted the menu accordingly.
Today, A-list celebrities and first families are among those eager to mark an occasion under Maria’s care and Fabio’s cuisine.
‘The day before President Obama and Michelle Obama’s 25th wedding anniversary, he called me and was like, ‘Hey, Maria, do you have a private room?’ I’m like oh my gosh, hi Mr. President! I didn’t have any space available. Congress was in session and all my rooms were booked. I looked at the weather and I said well I don’t have anything inside but I have a rooftop and maybe we can do a tasting dinner for two, and we did. It was magical. It’s so nice to be part of someone’s life like that.’
As scores of new restaurants vie to play a similar role, Maria welcomes the healthy competition. She believes one DC restaurant’s success is a win for the entire city, as guests become more educated about flavors, colors, and tastes, and turn into better eaters. She’s simply grateful for the opportunity to be in the mix.
‘DC opened their arms to us and embraced us when we arrived. I’ve met the most amazing people—thousands—and I’m very sure of myself now. I learned how to identify what they want and how to make them happy. I will continue doing that forever. I put Fabio’s magic into play.’