The Big Night!
"In love and life, one big night can change everything."
Just like in the film "Big Night," the Ricchi's had the opportunity to serve a dinner that would forever change the trajectory of their lives. Only after a month of opening their Tuscan restaurant, newly inaugurated President George Herbert Walker Bush came to dinner, creating a media buzz that would firmly establish them as Washington's newest authentic Italian restaurant.
This week's menu highlights i Ricchi dishes that were relatively unknown when they opened in 1989, but which have become customer favorites.
Salad of crispy toasted croutons, tomato, cucumber, red onions, basil and EVOO
Pasta quills "dragged through" Tuscan beef sugo
Arista e Patate alla Ghiotta
Roasted loin of pork with fresh sage and spices served with roasted rosemary potatoes
Chocolate-dipped profiteroles filled with chantilly cream
Featured wine: Tenuta Di Arceno, Chianti Classico 2018
Blend: 85% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot
The nose exudes ripe fruit and floral notes of violets and roses, with undertones of cypress and cedar. The palate is lush and full, chewy and laden with fruit. Supple tannins and moderate acidity allow the fruit flavors to shine through, revealing layers of red fruit – cherry and plum – with notes of honeysuckle. A long finish gives way to herbal and spice notes of nutmeg, cinnamon and lingering black tea.
Thirty-two years, five months and seven days ago, two ambitious young(ish) kids banked everything they had (and did not have) on the crazy dream of bringing authentic Italian food to America. Christianne and Francesco Ricchi had sold everything they had in Italy, packed up a 20-foot cargo container and their two small children and set out to build Washington’s first Tuscan restaurant.
Their “Big Night” came one month after opening on February 13, 1989, when newly inaugurated President George H.W. Bush, came to dinner. It was the night that changed everything.
Their journey began about two years earlier when Metropolitan Home Magazine editor, Steven Wagner, and food writer, Colman Andrews, arrived at the Ricchi’s little trattoria in Tuscany intent on writing a piece about the trending US phenomenon of “cucina rustica”, rustic Italian cooking. They strongly urged Chris and Francesco to consider opening a restaurant in the States where interest in authentic Italian food was mounting. Prior to that, the idea of a small Mom and Pop restaurant specializing in regional Tuscan cuisine seemed like a sure recipe for failure. American diners preferred Italian restaurants that had red checkered tablecloths, straw-covered Chianti bottles with dripping candles, and all red sauce. The concept that dinner would be served in several different courses of antipasto, pasta or risotto, main and dessert courses was still relatively unknown.
But they took the chance and opened Ristorante i Ricchi on 19th St., which proved to be providential as Americans were realizing that Italian food was more than a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Not only that, but they also opened their new restaurant at the dawning of the 1990s which turned out to be “the great era of restaurants in America”, per food writer, Alan Richman. Then, in 1996, Big Night a film about two brothers coming to America to open an authentic Italian restaurant became a cultural milestone as it set the stage for the future of the restaurant business in this country. Although their little restaurant, Paradise, is well appointed and serves spectacular food, they are failing miserably as their New Jersey Italian American, audience is not interested in food they do not recognize. To attract more customers, they create a magnificent feast, a celebratory “Big Night” in honor of a well-known Italian American band leader. What ensues is hilarious as the movie helps to start a revolution in American food consciousness.
This week’s menu highlights i Ricchi dishes that were unknown when we opened, but which have become customer favorites. Panzanella is a Tuscan salad that almost has become mainstream in the US with its various renditions. It was one of the first things I learned to prepare at the Trattoria. Tuscan bread is made without salt, so it becomes stale very quickly. The original recipe calls for it to be soaked in water, pulled apart and squeezed to create moist breadcrumbs. There are various theories as to its origins – one states it was developed by Tuscan fishermen who soaked their stale bread in salty sea water before adding sliced onions and olive oil. The other is that it was the preferred summer salad of Tuscan farmers as it was easy to eat while they worked the fields. We have prepared a more modern version where we cube the bread and toast it to create crisp, savory croutons that are combined with the traditional ingredients: tomato, basil, cucumbers, red onion, wine vinegar and EVOO.
Penne Strascicate is THE most popular dish on our menu. “Strascicare” literally means to drag. The pasta is dragged through or tossed with our slow-simmered beef sugo, a touch of cream and parmesan. It is the quintessential Tuscan pasta dish, the measure by which a restaurant is judged.
Arista is another dish you almost certainly can find in any Tuscan trattoria. The name originates from Greek, meaning “the best” – the center cut of pork loin. We season it with sage and garlic, sear it and finish it with the addition of red wine and stock to create its pan juices. It is almost always served with patate alla ghiotta. “La ghiotta” was a long-handled pan that was placed under the rotisserie to catch the juices of the rotating meats. Chunks of potatoes are basted by the drippings to create the perfect foil to our roasted pork.
Back by popular demand, Bongo Bongo, or the Italian version of cream-filled, chocolate-dipped profiterole (cream puffs.) Like many Italian dishes attributed to the French, this dessert was said to be created by Catherine de Medici’s chef. (Catherine, a 16th century Tuscan noblewoman, married King Henry II of France and introduced the Renaissance cuisine of her Florentine chefs when she moved to Paris.)
With the lifting of the mandate to limit restaurant service after COVID, it is as if every night is a “Big Night” for us now, as we experience a gradual return of diners. Interestingly enough, Stanley Tucci, new darling of CNN’s “Searching For Italy” starred in the film as a hopeful Italian entrepreneur with big dreams of serving exceptional food to an American audience. This is all sounding so familiar. So, as restaurants are returning, we will call to mind Chef Primo’s words from the movie: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” It is our mission to make sure that happens.