The opening of Thompson Italian last month has left Falls Church buzzing about the new modern eatery.
While the restaurant’s new take on Italian food, in owner and executive chef Gabe Thompson’s own admission, remains a sore spot to some that long for the rustic vibes of 124 N. Washington Streets old inhabitant, Argia’s, you couldn’t tell once inside. A steady stream of patrons make their way to the dining room or rear patio with the cacophony of kitchen sounds never quieting down during business hours.
Not bad for a chef who cut his teeth in Texas, Oregon and New York before returning to his wife Katherine’s home in the Washington D.C. area in 2016. Falls Church can count itself as fortunate that the busy (and expensive) New York City lifestyle caused the family to move down south. Thompson brings with him some tricks of the trade he learned about upscale dining in Manhattan to an accessible, neighborhood level in the D.C. suburbs. He’s managed to do just that — though don’t assume you’ll only get Italian dishes at this restaurant (we’ll let Thompson explain).
Thompson shared some time with the News-Press to elaborate on what people can expect with the menu, his impressions of Falls Church so far and what challenges the restaurant is still overcoming.
Can you give me your and Katherine’s respective culinary backgrounds?
I started out in a bunch of restaurants in Austin, Texas until I finally moved to Portland, Oregon. One of my more powerful experiences in Portland was working at a place called Clarklewis — it changed the way I cooked, how I approached food and how I tasted it. It serves Italian food, but in an American-y, Italian fashion. I then moved to New York City in 2003, worked, at various Italian restaurants before opening up Dell’Anima. From there I started a small restaurant group with some marketers and we opened three restaurants and a wine bar. Katherine is from here. She grew up in Arlington and went to [the College of] William & Mary. I’d been pestering her for years about getting our own restaurant, and started almost immediately after moving here in 2016. She was pretty against it since our daughter was two at the time, but Katherine had always been obsessed with food and all she wanted was a way to cook when she was 13. After college she moved to Seattle and tried the whole dotcom thing, then decided she wanted to go to culinary school. She went to the Culinary Institute of America where — even though she’s embarrassed to admit it — she graduated top of her class, which was a goal of hers inspired by Alfred Portale, who did the same. She moved to NYC, got a job at Per Se as a food runner, worked at Del Posto for a while, couple of wine stores and cooked food for events. We met after a few years from that, she helped get me the job at Dell’anima’s because she knew the guys opening it.
Growing up in Texas, with a lot of Tex-Mex food making up the culinary scene, how did you land on Italian as your restaurant’s cuisine?
Well, side note — opening a Tex-Mex restaurant is my dream. Was chatting about that with someone when we were putting together the concept for this place and they asked “Why wouldn’t you do the Tex-Mex thing?” and I said “I’d never done it as a restaurant before, so I’d like to do something first that I know instead of launch into something that I’d never had a service of before.” I think it was that experience at Clarklewis that really did it for me. It was amazing because it wasn’t really an Italian restaurant — you know, lasagna and meatballs, not super off-the-boat Italian. It was respecting the ideas of Italian cuisine but using the ingredients you had around you and making your own pasta and or maybe getting a pig and breaking it down, doing a sauce with it, different things like that. I thought that this could be Italian food, or could influence a philosophy of cooking more than anything.
What made you want to come to Falls Church?
We didn’t want to be in D.C. We wanted to be in this area, because we live in Arlington and our kids go to school there. We knew we weren’t going to do that at a restaurant in D.C. I was never going to see the kids and Katherine wouldn’t be as involved at the restaurant, so it just made sense to do it in this area. When we looked at Arlington, there was nothing available that fit what we were looking for. Someone said “Why don’t you look in Falls Church, it’s the bomb!” So we started looking around Falls Church and thought the community here is really nice. When this space was shown to us we knew it was the space we wanted. Hard part about this spot is that Argia’s used to occupy it, and for the people that really loved it, we’re trying to fill a hole that they may not want filled. So we might not meet people’s expectations, or we also might exceed them, but it’s been hard. There’s been a lot of Argia’s people who say we suck. I understand; it’s a totally different concept and look. If you loved Argia’s and go in there and it’s different, you’re not really into it. But to me, it’s nice that we’re using the space for the same style of restaurant.
How did you come up with the aesthetic for the restaurant?
Katherine did all the design. It was partially inspired by old some restaurants she worked at in New York, with the deep colors, accented by the pink, teal and gold combinations. We added the neon signs and even have some family members who did some charcoal paintings, such as that one of 18th and H in downtown D.C. Katherine’s dad got really into making soundproofing panels that line the walls after we found light fixtures that we liked, I made shades and sconces and got really into that. With our logo being black and pink, we wanted to use that a lot and add gold anywhere we could.
How are you distinguishing yourself from the other nearby Italian restaurants — Pizzeria Orso, Italian Cafe, Pistone’s Italian Inn and Sfizi Cafe?
I haven’t eaten any of them yet, so I don’t know what they’re like, but we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done. The same kind of food that we’ve always done in New York. We’re trying to also make it more family friendly than we did in New York. I don’t know the other local spots well enough, I haven’t made the time to check them out, so I think our guests are going to have to dictate to us whether we’re way off base or we fit in perfectly into the what the area wants.
Any twists to the Italian food concept you’re bringing to the menu?
To be 100 percent honest, we don’t make Italian food. So I love pasta. I like making it. But we just make things that we think taste good with those things. For example, our Bucatini is kind of a classic taste on pasta, but we load it up with toasted garlic. There’s other things that bring it together — such as the butter, parmesan and red chili flakes — but somebody the other day mentioned that “It just takes like toasted garlic” and I said that it’s exactly what it was. If I had given it a name like “Toasted Garlic Pasta,” they would understand, but I don’t because we tried to get inspired by ingredients and whatever we see — so we may see some apples and we’ll find a way to make an apple salad with other stuff thrown in there. We’re using some really great ingredients, spliced with some Italian ingredients and making whatever we want.”
It sounds like the menu is fluid then, where you guys are open to changing as things go?
Right now everything’s starting to dwindle, and we have to do a menu change. The fall menu change is always the hardest because we almost have to do something the same week. So it’s a hard thing to do. Probably have to change at least 75 percent of menu, which is difficult for the staff because they’re just now getting used to this menu; every entree and appetizer has to change. I have four or five things on the menu that are non-seasonal, but everything else is seasonal. So right now we’re writing out everything how we’re going to accomplish that and what items we’re gonna roll out and take off. For instance, one of our suppliers is running out of tomatoes, so we’re saying to ourselves “Cool, guess we’ll have to phase out tomatoes, then.”
What’s been a consistent challenge that you’ve found yourself having to conquer over and over again?
Organization. The space seems big but it’s not. Just constantly moving things here and there, and trying to find the right orientation for it all. I mean, to be honest, there’s been a million challenges, most of the things we thought. Katherine will talk about how all the sleepless nights she had about X, and then everything went fine there, and it ends up being Y that went wrong that we never worried about. So it’s a lot of that, but mostly space and having everything organized and realizing maybe we put a shelf in the wrong space or what have you.
Thompson Italian is located at 124 N. Washington St. in Falls Church and open six nights a week, from 5 – 10 p.m. and is closed on Tuesdays.