Nicholas Stefanelli’s Masseria is in many ways an homage to his roots. The Italian side of his family is from Puglia, a southeastern region of the country — really, the heel of the boot — and he proudly honors the cuisine and culinary traditions of that region, which has not had the stateside exposure of other Italian regional cuisines. Still, he’s far from rigidly tradition-bound. Instead, he draws from his own upbringing, along with the wealth of experience he’s had in the kitchen prior to Masseria, working under chefs such as Thomas Keller and Roberto Donna, and opening Bibiana in 2009 with restaurateur Ashok Bajaj.
Masseria is a word for a style of enclosed, Puglian countryside estate, where food was crafted from what the land was able to grow and support, and the restaurant is aesthetically designed in the same fashion. Tucked between the industrial lots and wholesale businesses surrounding Union Market, Masseria welcomes you with a wooden wall enclosing a courtyard, with the floor to ceiling windows of an inner patio lurking behind, as if it was indeed the back entrance of a private home. Behind that lies a brick wall segmenting the main dining room, the actual house, whose residents are waiting to take care of wary guests in need of a meal and hospitality.
Recently coming in at #12 on Washingtonian‘s 100 best list for the year, Masseria offers flexible 3-course, 4-course or 5-course tasting menus. Each menu includes dessert as one of its courses, but otherwise diners are encouraged to choose their dishes from any portion of the menu, including antipasti, pasta, pesce and carne dishes.
Keep in mind that with lavish bread service, an opening amuse-bouche, between course bites, and a pre-dessert palate cleanser, even a 3-course meal offers plenty more. During a recent visit, one such added nibble was actually the show stopper of an evening filled with them — the “Foie-Noli”. This mini cannoli was filled with a foie gras mousse, and adorned with black truffle shavings and pistachio crumble for a heavenly bite.
The menu changes often, but certain dishes may remain in place, although tweaked, whether to liven things up or simply reflect what’s fresh and available. For instance, a cobia crudo antipasti dish may one week be prepared with fennel, blood orange, basil, Castelvetrano olives and green chilies, and another, be offered with watermelon rind, basil seeds, and lime. A hearty portion of perfectly cooked foie gras may be paired with fig, almond, cocoa and Saba, or instead, sweet semolina, almond and persimmon.
Other dishes have quickly become crowd favorites and lasting, unchanged mainstays. That’s the case of the linguine with XO sauce, combining the spicy, salty seafood sauce of Hong Kong with house-made pasta, served in a specially-designed bowl easing the process of twirling a large bite of pasta around your fork.
On this visit, other highlights included the luscious, soft little agnolotti pillows, offered with chestnuts, coffee-fennel sausage, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Sicilian-style veal cheeks showcasing otherworldly delicate and tender meat, served with hazelnuts and roasted winter vegetables.
The presentation of each dish is artful and exacting, and service is attentive, and informative. A seat at the chef’s counter enhances the experience further, providing a first row look at the action in the open kitchen, where there are seemingly more chefs on hand than square footage of standing space. It’s a precise, fine-tuned operation that Stefanelli and his team have clearly perfected.
There’s a carefully-curated wine list from sommelier David Kurka, who’s also the restaurant’s general manager. Meanwhile, the cocktails are an experience all on their own. And while Masseria is known for that extensive collection of vino, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try some of the libations from bar manager Julien-Pierre Bourgon:
Watch the big reveal of the Fumo di Uva:
Bottom line — if you haven’t been to Masseria yet, then what in the world are you waiting for? You didn’t need me to tell you this, but the food, the service, and the attentiveness and care they provide at every step of the experience all make Masseria a truly special and rewarding dining destination.