Inspired by the country houses he remembers from trips to Puglia, Italy, former Bibiana chef Nicholas Stefanelli recently introduced Masseria, the first free-standing restaurant outside Union Market. Positioned between a wine importer and a cash-and-carry and enclosed by a wooden wall, the Italian restaurant is not at all obvious; veteran taxi drivers who swear they know the District have been known to drive right by the onetime produce warehouse.
Behind Masseria’s facade awaits an inviting courtyard, its low couches, ornamental grasses and gravel flooring the ideal spot for cocktails before dinner. Beyond a covered patio paved with Mediterranean tile is the dining room, with a mere 40 or so seats. The space, says Stefanelli, was designed with both luxury and grit in mind. Think Carrara marble, Wishbone chairs, cement floors and scarred walls or, as Stefanelli puts it, Sophia Loren in post-war Italy.
The menu is fixed price: three courses for $62 and five courses for $84. Given the area’s minimal foot traffic, the novice restaurant owner says, he wanted to seduce diners with “full glamour.” Masseria’s Frette napkins, $15 valet parking fee and wine list priced as if by a hotel further establish the arrival as something special.
Bread courses have taken a beating of late, with fewer restaurants featuring them, but Masseria makes a grand first impression with its doughs: crisp wine pretzels (taralli) dangling from a ceramic octopus ring holder and springy focaccia delivered in a wooden box with tomato fondue. The octopus alludes to a tattoo Stefanelli sports on his arm and shoulder, while the condiment harks to the chef’s childhood, when he would scrape the edges of a pot of tomato sauce for a lick.
One of the most alluring salads around is Masseria’s riff on crudites. The market is likely to dictate what finds its way to your plate: My starter proved a fashion statement wrought from raw vegetables — baby zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes, beets — along with edible flowers, fresh herbs, vegetable purees and a lemony dressing to brighten the landscape. Another noteworthy first course finds sweet lobster paired with braised tripe in a dark pool that smacks of both herbs and the sea. Pastas include a few modern touches (XO sauce informs the linguine); main courses find cherries sweetening dry-aged duck, and dorade paired with romaine and splashed with brown butter.
What started as hard to find in July quickly became a not-so-hidden gem. The word is out: If you care about food with a side of style, Masseria is a must.
1340 Fourth St. NE. 202-608-1330. www.masseria-dc.com. Three courses, $62; five courses, $84.