Eight years ago, Nicholas Stefanelli was a 30-year-old chef enjoying some R&R along with some R&D in Puglia, Italy, where he became smitten by the sight of restaurants with butcher shops attached to them. “I was blown away by them,” says the chef, who vowed to do something similar on his home turf.
Back in Washington and over time, life happened — Stefanelli opened Masseria outside Union Market — and the concept of a little retail shop became something approaching a mini-Eataly as he tacked on the idea of a bakery, a wine store and ... have you been to the Wharf to see how Stefanelli’s dream has grown into three floors and 14,000 square feet of fun?
To visit Officina is to marvel at the chef’s ability to woo us day and night with a ground-floor cafe, bar and market; a second-floor trattoria whose best tables look onto the neighborhood’s past; and a rooftop terrazzo with fire pits and a forthcoming aluminum cover that will allow for year-round toasting. (Raise a glass of amaro from the nearby lounge that specializes in Italian herbal liqueur, some dating to the 1930s.) Presumably, you could start the day with an espresso, peruse the shelves for the curated goods of a top chef, tackle an overstuffed sandwich at lunch, sip a $7 wine at happy hour, go upstairs for dinner and nod when a host suggests you take dessert under the stars.
Since Officina (oh-fee-CHEE-nah) rolled out in October, I’ve logged the most hours at the dinner-only trattoria, where chef de cuisine Sean Tener, who has worked alongside Stefanelli for a decade, patrols the exhibition kitchen. Depending where you sit, windows capture the neon-lit Maine Avenue Fish Market next door. Lucky are the occupants of Table No. 38, a cozy booth with one of the best views in the house.
Stefanelli isn’t trying to reinvent the Vespa here. The bulk of his menu showcases Italian classics, some with a tweak or two. Like so many kitchens, this one does meatballs. Officina’s, rolled with veal and pork, taste fluffier than most and gather on a puddle of tangy tomato sauce and mazza frissa — cream thickened with whole wheat flour — that helps deplete the bread basket. (Speaking of carbs, the crackling, olive-oil-glossed focaccia is terrific.) Pasta e fagioli rates loftier than the bean-and-pasta pack, too. Officina offers a spectacular meatless version whose broth is based on mushroom stock and kombu, the swell among seaweeds. From the fryer emerge cone-shaped rice fritters with molten cores of veal ragu, greaseless artichokes with a frizzle of fresh parsley, and what’s become my favorite way to eat calamari: crisp little tentacles slicked with a saffron cream, lit with raw garlic and fresh chiles, and tossed with pickled cherry peppers. The calamari is one of the few dishes to carry over from the luxe Masseria, where it’s a bar snack. Every bar should be so lucky.
You can skip the roasted figs stuffed with ricotta, though. They are achingly sweet and hint not a bit of the ’nduja, or spreadable salami, supposedly tucked inside.
I’ve yet to meet a pasta I didn’t like. Winy, whispering-of-garlic clams paired with gently resistant linguine rates among Italy’s, and this kitchen’s, finest contributions. Officina serves its lemony, ricotta-stuffed agnolotti with a wink (the expected spinach is a garnish, served outside the supple pasta twists). Mushroom risotto tastes of mindful — slow and steady — cooking and benefits from a carpet of shaved porcinis that look like curls of butter.
The first-floor market sells meat and shows certain cuts in the throes of molding, or dry aging. So I was excited to try the beef stowed for 40 days. Too much time in the locker? My New York strip steak proved funky in the extreme, and this is coming from a guy who appreciates the mineral tang imparted by dry aging. The steak’s saving grace is a caper-fueled salsa verde, good enough to go on the shelves of the market. Lamb chops requested medium-rare arrive so red and rare, they could almost pass for tartare. The grilled pork chop is straightforward, a bit dry. Half chicken cooked under the weight of a saute pan, on the other hand, is crisp where you expect it to be and juicy throughout, spurred by a spritz of lemon juice. And proof that more is merrier is a plate of grilled swordfish, prawns and calamari, each element cooked separately on the plancha and hit with garlic, chile and lemon; you’ll scarf the small plate.
Innards, including tripe and sweetbreads, make for compelling organ recitals. The latter are lightly smoked in hay, splashed with brown butter and finished with fragrant, subtly sweet, gold-green fennel pollen, the fairy dust of modern chefs.
Main courses come with minimal support. You’ll need a side dish or two to round out an entree, some of which stretch the meaning; the $27 dorade could pass for an amuse-bouche anywhere else. Next visit, I’ll forgo the crushed potatoes with olive oil (Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurants do them better) and the broccoli (blah despite black olives and anchovies) in favor of the simple spinach kissed with lemon and divine cipollini onions, which yield a trumpet blast of sweet and sour.
There’s a lot under one roof in this officina, Italian for “workshop.” Much of it is welcome, but a few details keep me from high-fiving the whole shebang. I pity the servers, having to shout the chef’s mission statement and detail the menu, which diners hear over and over, since the tables are thisclose. But that’s what happens when you’re in a packed room with little to muffle the din.
On the upside, the people-watching can be terrific. No sooner did Officina open than it became the go-to place for the city’s real estate gurus, TV news readers, and other movers and shakers. One can only imagine the clientele Stefanelli will collect at his forthcoming 80-seat Greek restaurant downtown, scheduled for sometime next year and yet to be named. (The chef is half-Greek.)
For now, let’s hope the new bar in the sky gets its cover from Italy ASAP. Before rain and cold kept us inside, colleagues and I got a chance to take in the elements. As good as they are below deck, lemon croustade, hazelnut torte and Amaro Braulio — a digestive that brings mountain forest to tongue — are better (and quieter!) in the company of a dancing fire pit, waterfront view and blankets to ward off an evening chill. Which brings me to my final point. To Officina’s many functions, I’d add off-site meeting — and date night.
Officina (Good/Excellent) 1120 Maine Ave. SW. 202-747-5222. officinadc.com.
Open: Dinner daily. Prices: Antipasti $5 to $15, pasta and main courses $18 to $49.
Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud.