Italian mainstay La Tomate turned 30 last year, and to mark a new chapter, the restaurant hired an Italian native — its first head chef to date — to modernize and breathe new life into the menu.
Domenico Apollaro, who moved from Europe to open D.C.’s Lupo Verde in 2014, left his chef position there last year. La Tomate founder Natalina Koropoulos scooped him up about a month ago to add more authentic flavor and sophistication to her aging two-story Italian restaurant. He’s already changed about 50 percent of the existing menu, sprinkling in new starters like suppli (saffron risotto balls with lemon zest and squash veloute) and Romagnolo-style grilled calamari with squid ink vinaigrette.
Part of the menu overhaul means editing down sections in order to rotate a simple and strong lineup of ingredients.
“If you have 25 kinds of pastas it’s impossible to be fresh,” he says.
He spots big potential throughout the 180-seat wood-heavy restaurant, which features huge windows overlooking Dupont’s street action. For one, the kitchen boasts lots of unused space where he plans to make items from scratch. He’s already doing that with the pastas, including a rigatoni with slow-cooked duck ragout, spices, and herbs. A gelato machine is en route from Italy to start making sweets and sorbets on site.
There’s no question the restaurant — named after the owner’s late husband’s love for the circular fruit — sits in one of the most desirable locations of the city, wedged at the corner where Connecticut Avenue meets R Street. To draw a new crop of customers, the restaurant is toying around with the idea of expanding food service to 11 p.m. via a new menu at the bar.
“I think we can do an upscale late-night,” says Apollaro. “There’s a lot of young people around.”
He’s also going to push a monthly tasting menu and rely more on slow cooking and sous vide techniques; his sous chef from Lupo Verde has already joined him in the kitchen. New sandwiches are also coming online, to be served out of La Tomate’s on-site cafe that popped up four years ago (it also doubles as a prosciutto bar). He plans to officially release a new crop of menus for the multi-faceted space — one for the main dining area, one for the bar, and casual ones for the cafe portion, which is looking to extend its hours — in the coming month or so.
Authentic touches added inside the restaurant include a huge 22-pound wrapped chocolate being raffled off — a popular happening in Italian restaurants during Easter. He’s also playing around with hosting passport-style family feasts to highlight menu items up and down his native country, from lamb to lasagna.
Prior to joining Lupo, Apollaro was the executive chef at Eat’s Easy Restaurante in Milan, Italy. He’s also operated three restaurants in Villapiana, Italy and worked at Hotel Hermitage in Portoferraio, Italy. He started his career in the food business at age 12; he’s 36 now. Since he’s moved to the U.S. four years ago he’s “found the love of his life” and had a daughter.
In his newest role, he hopes to make the Dupont block an Italian lover’s destination. His side business, Appian Market, sells artisan goods produced by small businesses in Italy like handbags, plates, and leather products. He has a deal to plant a new showroom two doors down from La Tomate, drawing inspiration from the dining, arts, and shopping district of Milan’s 10 Corso Como.
“Four generations of people doing the same thing, they are masters of what they do,” he says.