- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

First of all, you need the name of the restaurant explained. It's "i Ricchi," pronounced "ee REEkee."
Those who know Italian well might translate it as "the Ricchis'" or "the Ricchis' place."
Similar explanations are needed for the menu and the design of the restaurant at 1220 19th St. NW. Anyone unfamiliar with Florence, Italy, might assume they were eating at another European-style restaurant where the food is slightly undercooked and a little bit expensive.
For those who understand the finer points of Italian culture and cuisine, i Ricchi is about as Italian as drinking a frothy cup of cappuccino while riding a gondola through the canals of Venice.
If Leonardo Da Vinci set up a commercial art studio in Dupont Circle, this is where he would treat his best clients to lunch.
"I'm striving to keep this restaurant as authentic as possible," said Christianne Ricchi, the owner. The chairs, pottery and terra cotta tiles all were imported from Italy. The frescoes on the walls are copies of Florentine frescoes.
The president of Italy liked i Ricchi enough that he presented Mrs. Ricchi with awards in 1990 and 1998 called the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, saying it was one of the world's best Italian restaurants outside of Italy.
The food has an authentic mix of strong flavors from the Tuscany region of Italy, where Florence is the main city.
"Tuscany, if you talk to a Tuscan, is the heart of Italy," Mrs. Ricchi said. "It's where the Renaissance began."
Mrs. Ricchi refined her knowledge of Tuscan cuisine and culture during 18 years as a chef and professional painter in Florence. "It did something for my artistic hunger," she said.
She explains the Tuscan style of food as "rustic and down to earth, primal flavors and fresh products. Tuscan food is not contrived. It's very simple flavors."
The rigatoni alla boscaiola and the insalata Caprese were world class. The rigatoni struck a good balance among homemade sausage, black olives, tomatoes and mushrooms. The insalata Caprese salad made an equally good showing with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil.
The green salad, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, was reasonably good.
The salmon and calamari were slightly underdone. Flavorful, but not quite as well cooked as most American palates prefer.
As might be expected, not all of i Ricchi's customers understand the special slice of Florentine culture they find at the restaurant. Some even have difficulty understanding the Italian names and rolling R's as the waiter explains the specials of the day.
One of those who had difficulties was Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who ate lunch their last fall with about dozen colleagues. Mrs. Ricchi said he asked many questions about the menu items before ordering.
As Mrs. Ricchi loaded a tray with glasses of liqueur, the weight of the glasses made the tray tip.
"Six glasses of limoncello down the back of Shimon Peres," Mrs. Ricchi said. "I'm not going to tell you what he said. I took a napkin and tried to wipe off his coat. He was very forgiving and very understanding."
Other customers have included former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. "We're waiting for our new president," Mrs. Ricchi said.
Mrs. Ricchi had a different kind of brush with politics last fall. Her restaurant was one of the businesses hit hard by the downturn of Washington's hospitality industry after the September 11 attack. She testified in October before the House Small Business Committee on the need for federal assistance to the business community.
This week, i Ricchi is participating in Washington Restaurant Week. Area restaurant owners got together and decided on a joint marketing effort that included offering discounts on house specials.
At i Ricchi, the special is a three-course lunch that includes spiedino Toscano (a veal, sausage and chicken dish), ribollita (bread soup) and sorbetto al limone (lemon sorbet). The entire meal costs $20.02, which conveniently matches the same numbers in the new year.
"That has helped our business considerably," Mrs. Ricchi says. She estimated business is still down by 15 percent since September 11.
Many of i Ricchi's customers are traveling businessmen, lobbyists, lawyers and politicians. One afternoon this week, the restaurant filled shortly after noon with middle-management types from nearby Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill. One large round table was filled with women apparently celebrating a special occasion at the office.
On weekends, customers often are suburbanites treating themselves to a downtown fling.
Mrs. Ricchi explains i Ricchi's appearance on the Washington scene 13 years ago by describing two things she likes best.
"I love Tuscany," she said. "I love to make people happy."

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