The Woman Behind D.C.’s Italian Growing Restaurant Group
Maria Trabocchi never planned to be in the restaurant industry. But when her husband, chef Fabio Trabocchi, opened regional Italian establishment Fiola in 2011, she agreed to help him until the business took off. Flash-forward eight years, and the D.C. restaurant has spawned a whole hospitality group, including two outposts of Fiola in Miami and Venice, Italy, respectively, as well as sister concepts Fiola Mare, Sfoglina Pasta House, and Del Mar.
While chef Fabio leads the culinary side in delivering Michelin-worthy dishes, Maria Trabocchi commands the front of house, ensuring operations flow smoothly and guests are well attended. In fact, Trabocchi has become such a fixture in the couple’s restaurants that regular diners may be more apt to recognize her than the chef. As a recent Washington Post profile surmised, “He’s the celebrity chef, but she’s running the show.”
FSR caught up with Trabocchi amid a busy travel schedule ahead of Fiola’s Venetian debut to chat about life in the restaurant industry and her quintessential savoir faire.
Your role in the business is so multifaceted. How would you describe it?
When we started Fiola in 2011, Fabio and I were really alone, so we had no choice but to do it all together. There was a point where I would write checks, do the public relations, work the floor during the entire service, and buy pillows or artwork for the restaurant. I don’t have to do all that anymore as we have an incredible team that works with us. My favorite thing now is being on the floor at any of the restaurants, talking to our guests. I am more the face of the restaurant.
I get to meet the guests and develop relationships with them. It creates some loyalty. Everyone is always happy to see the owner and they feel connected with you. They feel almost privileged that the owner stopped by the table.
Your restaurants seem to harken back to a golden age of hospitality. Do you think U.S. restaurants are moving away from that? What does this mean for patrons?
I feel restaurants are becoming less personable. Our guests love it when we approach them and have come to appreciate it more since it’s rare.
There’s nothing more important than the personal touch. I always put myself in the shoes of the guest and ask, What would I like at this restaurant? What would make it more special? Let’s make the customers happy. They come to us, so let’s show that we care and we really want to meet them.
I don’t have time to see every table in an evening, but I do make time to see people who are celebrating. I also make a point in every restaurant to say hello to five tables I’ve never met, every night. I can remember people; I learn their faces and things about them very quickly and when we start talking the next time, I remember things.
What is a typical day like?
We have children—Aliche, 18, and Luca, 15—and I get up to have breakfast with them and take them to school. I need to have time with my kids somewhere, so I take it as much as I can. Then I go straight to the gym and to work. I work at the corporate office, where we do a lot with fundraisers and charities.
Then I go to a restaurant and plan my route for the evening. I like to stay a full dinner shift in one restaurant. The flow of the evening starts early; it’s hard to get into it in the middle, and the magic only happens if you spend time doing it. Oftentimes I leave one restaurant for another to say hi to guests or to acknowledge special occasions. It’s also nice for the staff to have me walking the floor with them and educating them. It’s important to transmit our culture to them.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?
My job is to make people happy using Fabio’s magic. Most rewarding moments are when people book reservations when they’re leaving because they loved it so much they want to come back and bring friends.
There are always so many people that come and go, and sometimes they break your heart when they leave. Fabio and I are a great team, but we don’t go out or have family holidays much as we’re always in the restaurant. Plus, I like to wear heels and my feet hurt a lot.
What constitutes an ideal dining experience, and what can elevate it from good to perfect?
A dining experience is only good when the whole is perfect. Finding that balance is key. My ideal experience is based on pure ingredients, simplicity, flavors, technique, lighting, noise levels, comfort, and invisible yet approachable service.