Ristorante i Ricchi: Dust Off Your Passport

I came across my passport the other day. My heart lurched, and I sighed so loudly that I startled myself. How long will it be before I can use it again? These days a thrilling journey is getting in my car and driving downtown to dine on a restaurant patio, which I’ve only done a few times. I’m still apprehensive about interactions with people outside my bubble and having a conversation while wearing a mask will always feel surreal. But as cold weather approaches, I am stocking up on these experiences in preparation for a return to hibernation.

I have always given a great deal of thought about where to dine, to the point of obsessive consideration and reconsideration. This is truer for me now, as supporting restaurants has never been so critical.

This brings me to dinner at i Ricchi. The restaurant has been on my to do list for ages. I am incentivized to visit in support of the week-long Women’s Food Fest (which ran from September 23- September 30), a promotion designed to highlight women-owned DC area businesses and raise funds to distribute meals  to charitable organizations, through the Hook Hall Helps project. I Ricchi chef/owner Christianne Ricchi was a proud participant in the program.

Her restaurant, which recently turned 31-years old, is well known for Tuscan and regional Italian cuisine. Since a trip to Italy isn’t possible, now is the time to enjoy the food through the eyes of this storyteller as she cleverly weaves her experiences and knowledge of the country into her food.

Ribollita. Cavatelli Neri. Bistecca All’ Arrabbiata. Tonno E Fagioli. An exploration of the online menu stirs up food memories from a trip my husband and I took to Italy nine years ago. This time, my expedition is to 19th Street, NW. The once-bustling business district is now largely abandoned, and Ricci was challenged to think outside the box to survive. One asset – a beautiful outdoor patio.

“Fortunately, we already had a lovely patio space, but this year we knew we needed to make it feel as inviting as possible,” Christianne tells me. “We added more flowering planters, bright red cushions to the benches and wrapped the trees in small festive lights. Of course, we had to move the tables to a safe distance and added hand sanitizer stations so they were visible and  easily assessable. The tables were set differently to eliminate anything that could potentially carry germs, ie: each slice of bread was wrapped separately, salt shakers, cruets, sugar bowls, etc were removed. Menus were laminated and wiped down after every use as well.” There are heaters to help extend outdoor dining, and she is looking into installing portable tents.

But as every restaurateur learned early on in the pandemic, carryout is a necessity. The innovation Christianne employed to attract customers was the creation of the i Ricchi Food Club. The key was leaning into her nearly two decades spent in Tuscany and bringing Italy into people’s homes. The chef hones in on a particular region or ingredient each week and crafts a meal that embraces the concept.

It’s a clever idea that enables the chef to plan ahead. Club members can sign up for a meal once a week or twice a week for a period of four weeks. A one-time trial is $49 per person, and there are discounts that increase with the frequency of the order. The meal includes an antipasto, pasta, main course, and dessert. Wine pairings are available.  Food is picked up curbside, and Christianne greets patrons at their car with a warm hello and an expression of thanks. I imagine that this personal touch is a contributing factor to the club’s success.

When I dine at i Ricchi, the Food Club theme is available to onsite patrons. Hooray! The theme of the week is “On the Hunt: Mushroom Madness.” This is the narrative that accompanies the menu:

Foraging for mushrooms is an essential part of autumn in Tuscany. This time of year, it’s all about mushrooms, hunting them, eating them, and talking about them. The exhilaration of the hunt – the thrill of discovering and picking wild mushrooms in an Italian forest is something I will never forget. This week’s menu highlights homemade pasta with assorted mushrooms and other Tuscan seasonal specialties.

The dishes are earthy and homey with a dash of elegance. Tuscan black kale is accessorized by cannellini beans, golden raisins, and pecorino.

I Ricchi  Insalata di Cavolo Nero e Faglioli

The pasta course beautifully unites porchini, cremini, shiitake, portobello and oyster mushrooms with fresh egg pasta squares.

I Ricchi Tacconi Al Funghi

The meal crescendos with a rich and buttery serving of Florentine chicken with a bronzed skin that glimmers in the moonlight. The finale is a rustic golden apple pudding cake.

I Ricchi Torta di Mele

A look back at previous Food Club themes is entertaining and educational. There is “Verona – Love, Opera and Valpolicella” highlighting the flavors of Verona which includes radicchio, escarole, squash, pumpkin, and polenta. “Leave the gun; take the cannoli!” is a food tribute to “The Godfather.” Garlic bread, meatballs and sausages, and obviously, cannoli. Each menu reflects an incredible attention to detail, exhibited not just in the food, but in the accompanying explanations.

Ricchi acknowledges that some COVID-era patrons prefer comfort food. To meet their needs, she introduced Sunday Suppers featuring fried chicken or prime rib.  Her chicken recipe was developed when she ran a small trattoria in Tuscany with her former husband, and it’s been a big hit at i Ricchi.  The chicken dinner ($29) includes three pieces of fried chicken, polenta corn pudding, salad, and a chocolate chip cookie. The menu is getting rave reviews and repeat customers. For those who desire a fancier Sunday meal, the prime rib dinner is $49.

Patrons are welcome to eat inside the inviting Tuscan-themed dining room, although the majority are more comfortable outdoors. Christianne understands this, although she is concerned about the future when she’ll be forced to again rely primarily on carryout orders. “I am an optimist and have tried to meet this challenge head on, but without some kind of immediate government relief plan, I don’t see how urban restaurants, especially those downtown in the business districts, will be able to survive,” she says.  It’s a concern echoed throughout the restaurant and hospitality industry.

I Ricchi dining room

For the majority of us, travel has come to a standstill. But this doesn’t mean we can’t explore faraway countries and cuisines. The pandemic is forcing us to reimagine how we survive and thrive. So I’ll dust off my passport, toss it in my pocketbook, and take a trip to downtown DC to experience Italy through the visionary Christianne Ricchi.  I encourage you to get on board.

Ristorante i Ricchi, 1220 19th Street NW, Washington, DC

 

 

 

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