Former RPM Italian executive chef Gabe Thompson and pastry chef Katherine Thompson, his wife, have helmed kitchens at some of Manhattan’s top Italian restaurants. So designing the food for their first D.C. area restaurant, which opens next week in Falls Church, was well within their wheel house. But creating the look was completely new territory.
“I am not a designer, so that was challenging, but [it’s] a fun project to take on,” Katherine Thompson says. “We came up with creative ways to make it look new and different.”
Thompson Italian is planning to open Wednesday, August 14, in a new-look space that used to house Argia’s Italian restaurant (124 N. Washington Street, Falls Church). There are 100 seats between the blue-toned bar and dining room, with 24 more in the outdoor patio area.
Thompson says the new restaurant’s mantra is, “A modern take on Italian food.” There are about eight types of pasta (in full and half portions) to start, like a ricotta gnocchi with 24-hour braised Rosetta Farms lamb. A short fish and meat section includes market fish with clams, corn, and guanciale.
In New York City, the Thompsons were part of the opening team at Dell’anima in the West Village in 2007. They went on to become chef-partners at a trio of popular Italian restaurants across the city (L’Artusi, Anfora, and now-closed L’Apicio). Before that, Gabe Thompson was at Le Bernardin, and Katherine Thompson was at Per Se.
One of their first regulars in NYC — a graphic designer who reimagines rock concert posters for a living — lent a hand in the design process. The couple handpicked some of their favorite bands that rose to fame in the 1980s and ’90s, like the Pixies and Radiohead, to represent their tastes on the walls.
Katherine Thompson’s parents are a pair of artists, and the couple leaned on family and friends to reinvent the space with abstract murals, neon signage, and reimagined concert posters that could fit in at the State Theater next-door.
“It was 100-percent a family affair,” says Thompson, whose mom had an art studio in Falls Church in the 1990s. Her dad taught art in Arlington County public schools.
To encourage talking over plates, her dad built sound absorption panels and covered them with painted acoustic fabrics. He also created a simple trio of panels featuring lemons and an espresso machine.
Black-and-white graphite drawings capturing downtown D.C. in the ’80s offset the slick subway-tiled bar.
“I love that nod of an urban D.C. feel,” Thompson says. But she says the couple chose to open their restaurant in downtown Falls Church because it “has a small city feel to it. It’s really charming.”
Katherine’s sister-in-law has been studying neon art and helped find a studio in Brooklyn to make a “Pasta Power” sign. It sits above a window-facing wood table where cooks will make pasta during the day.
Thompson Italian marks Katherine’s comeback to pastry; she’s taken a few years off to care for her toddlers. The opening lineup of six desserts includes her famed olive oil cake, which is still on the menu at L’Artusi.
“It’s classic and delicious. I’m not going to change it. I think people will appreciate it here,” she says.