His résumé is ideal. Not only has he cooked for Fabio Trabocchi at Fiola and Fiola Mare, he knows Bajaj well, having worked for him earlier at the Oval Room near the White House. Modena, says Melfi, is a chance to start from scratch and “make a splash.”
Splashes — of flavor and color — are everywhere in the new dining room, reconsidered in a blue palette and featuring an antipasti cart up front.
Imported from Italy, the walnut trolley displays more than a half-dozen salads and other snacks, offered as three, five or seven tastes for $15, $18 and $21, respectively. Everything I’ve sampled (beets bolstered with Gorgonzola and walnuts, artichokes tossed with tomatoes and garlic) has been worth repeating, but the standouts are the silken roasted peppers, brilliant with lemon and basil, and the sheep’s milk ricotta tart featuring a changing vegetable (spinach on my visit) and a dusting of pecorino that looks like fresh snow.
It’s tempting to keep ordering from the cart — unfortunately stationary when it’s busy — and make a meal from the spread alone. Forge on. Among the stellar first courses is a stuffed squid, which Melfi says he learned to make from his late grandmother in Upstate New York. His version slips spicy, finely ground sausage into the tender body, arranged in a bowl with crisp fried tentacles, meaty periwinkles (sea snails) and dots of avocado puree. The creamy green accent underscores the chef’s approach: Italian-leaning, but not beholden to any region — or even the borders of Italy, for that matter.
First among equals amid the pastas is the agnolotti. Pierce the delicate noodles with fork or teeth and the prize is a warm rivulet of pureed corn, butter and fresh thyme: a rush of summer that lingers on the tongue. Diners ask Melfi if there’s meat hidden in the dish. What they’re tasting, he says, is “the essence” of sopressata, from an oil he infuses with fennel seeds, garlic and other enhancers. The flesh-free trick makes for heady eating.
There are a lot of exceptional lamb dishes playing around the city right now. (Fans, get thee to Bresca for the lamb shoulder, glazed with beet and black garlic molasses, stat.) Melfi’s contribution is lamb loin that benefits from a days-long sit in black garlic, olive oil, cumin and fennel. Add to the finished dish some caramelized cipollini onions and fairy tale eggplant and what’s to stop the applause?
Oh, the bread could be a bit better and the gianduja mousse could taste more of chocolate, but those are minor quibbles in the face of so much diverting food.
Under Melfi, there’s no missing what came before Modena. Instead, there’s only anticipation: How soon can I come back for more?
1100 New York Ave. NW 202-216-9550. modenadc.com. Dinner entrees, $24 to $36.
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