When it opens for limited reservations on Tuesday in Northeast (it's full speed ahead beginning Aug. 4), Masseria will represent a couple of firsts. It will be chef Nick Stefanelli's first solo venture. And it will be the first standalone restaurant to open in the neighborhood around Union Market.
So, no pressure. No pressure at all.
Stefanelli shrugs it off. No matter how you look at it, he figures, people were going to be closely watching the Italian-inspired restaurant from the former Bibiana chef anyway.
Oh, and one more thing. Between the time off he took after leaving Bibiana and the build-out of Masseria, "I haven't cooked professionally in seven months," Stefanelli said.
A sobering admission, no doubt. But sitting in the Masseria courtyard on a July afternoon, neither that nor the fact that there are still many last-minute details to resolve -- where are those fire tables? -- seems to faze Stefanelli. The setting is soothing enough to put even the most stressed-out, Type-A Washingtonian at ease.
The restaurant certainly stands apart from its surroundings, which are still dominated by delivery trucks, wholesalers and the occasional graffiti. But Stefanelli, who lives nearby, said it was hard to say no when Richie Brandenburg, director of culinary strategy for Union Market developer Edens, offered him the space.
"I wanted to find something with charm and character," Stefanelli said. "I don't know of anything in the city like this."
Stefanelli said his goal was to create an "oasis" that would resemble Italy in both spirit and appearance. The high timbered walls surrounding the outdoor space are designed to help do that. There are also low-slung gray sofas and planters full of herbs, grasses and flowers. Next comes the pergola, with blue-and-white hand-painted tiles, strands of light bulbs and a retractable awning. Eventually the patio will be enclosed with windows and sliding French doors so that the space can be used year-round.
Inside the 42-seat former produce warehouse, it's rustic meets industrial chic, with accents of steel, beige and blue. Part of the inspiration comes from the establishments in Italy's Puglia region that provided the name of the new restaurant. Masseria are agricultural estates that often house restaurants or even hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. They're not grand but they're still polished, said Stefanelli, who has family roots in both Puglia and Sicily.
The food, too, takes its cues from southern Italy, the chef said. The menu will be broken into antipasti, pasta and fish and meat categories. Expect a prix fixe format (three courses for $60, five for $85), but one that will allow diners to choose between all the categories to build their own experience.
For those with deeper pockets and a trusting nature, there's the six-seat chef's table. The table is set off to the side of the open kitchen, which unlike some others, lives up to the name by being totally exposed to the dining room (a window does not an open kitchen make). The chef's table will cost $150 for a meal of eight to 10 courses. There's also counter seating along the front of the open kitchen for diners ordering from the prix fixe menu.
Bar snacks and a cigar list will be available outside. Patrons at the bar will also be able to order food a la carte rather than having to commit to the prix fixe. The bar will serve indoor and outdoor patrons from one space -- a glass window opens to the exterior, meaning the bartender has access to both counters. Bar manager Julien-Pierre Bourgon comes from the Eat Good Food Group, having worked with Todd Thrasher at Restaurant Eve, Bar TNT and Bar PX.
Stefanelli said his goal was always to open his own restaurant. Helping restaurateur Ashok Bajaj open Bibiana in 2009 was an "invaluable experience," he said. He spent five years in the downtown kitchen, but Stefanelli says diners shouldn't be expecting repeat dishes, though some familiar items may pop up occasionally (black spaghetti, anyone?). "It's a new restaurant," Stefanelli said. "It's a new personality."
Masseria, 1340 Fourth St. NE. www.masseria-dc.com. 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Soft opening July 21 with limited weekday-only reservations; officially opening Aug. 4.