When Nicholas Stefanelli was growing up in the small town of Beallsville, Md., “my friends always wanted to come over and eat at our house,” recalls the chef. Food was “a focal point” in his upbringing; both sets of grandparents—Greek and Italian—tended backyard gardens, and “everybody” in the family cooked. Stefanelli, 38, initially pursued studies in fashion design, but after one transformative trip to Italy, he was drawn to the kitchen, his family’s passion for food laying the foundation for a bright culinary career.
After graduating from Maryland’s L’Academie de Cuisine in 2000, Stefanelli accrued experience at restaurants such as Wine Spectator Grand Award winner the French Laundry, and under chef Fabio Trabocchi, who now owns Best of Award of Excellence winners Del Mar, Fiola and Fiola Mare. In 2015, Stefanelli opened his own restaurant, an Italian tasting-menu concept called Masseria in Washington, D.C. The restaurant quickly gained acclaim for its refined spin on familiar Italian flavors in pastas like chicken liver agnolotti and entrées like Mediterranean stone bass with a spicy saffron emulsion. Masseria also established itself as a wine destination, offering an impressive global list managed by wine director John Filkins. The program first earned the Best of Award of Excellence in 2017 and offers nearly 1,000 selections today.
Now, Stefanelli is building a small empire of his own. He is slated to open a Greek restaurant in D.C. next year, but first, he is putting the finishing touches on Officina, a 14,000-square-foot, three-story project in the city’s massive new waterfront complex, the Wharf, opening in stages with a completion goal of late September. The space will feature a market—including an in-house butcher, baker and wine shop—plus a trattoria for full-service dining and an “amaro library” bar, and a rooftop terrace with cocktails, snacks and plenty of Champagne options.
Stefanelli spoke with editorial assistant Julie Harans about broadening his horizons beyond Carlo Rossi, playing with Chinese and Italian influences in the same dish, and what pairing has most surprised him recently.
WS: How did you wind up in the restaurant industry?
NS: I went to Europe to go look at fashion design schools, and while I was in Italy I was floored by food culture … Then, D.C. was a very different place than it is now. And so when I saw the people in the streets eating and drinking and enjoying, I was just floored by why we don’t have that where we are, and I came back and went to culinary school and started cooking. It’s just kind of like a switch got flipped.
WS: Can you talk about some of the philosophies and inspirations behind your cooking?
NS: A lot of it is the regionality of the food, and trying to be a little more playful and avant-garde with how we put things together but still keeping the heart and soul of what that dish is. Like the linguine with XO sauce that we do: I went to China and helped at a friend’s restaurant and learned how to make XO sauce while we were there, and I fell in love with it. But I took what XO sauce was and I made it kind of Italian. In Italy, there’s also a lot of dried fish and anchovies.
So instead of dried shrimp, it’s dried scallops, which are kind of the core pieces, and instead of Chinese sausage we use prosciutto, and then we cook it all down in olive oil with garlic and a little bit of ginger in it. … It’s so simple and beautiful, yet it’s really complex to get to that point as well. So when you eat that dish, you have something of nostalgia but you also have something of future going into it.
WS: How were you introduced to the world of wine?
NS: When I first started cooking, I worked at this restaurant, Galileo. And when I was an intern, the grill cook was back there, and one of the wine runners was like, “If you give me a veal chop, I’ll give you a bottle of Barolo.” And I’m like, “What’s a bottle of Barolo?” My grandfather drank Carlo Rossi out of a gallon jug … In the Windows on the World wine book, [Kevin Zraly] has this sentiment talking about, “You have to drink a lot of bad wine to know what good wine tastes like,” and it’s very true. I’ve drunk a lot of bad wine. And then you really taste something and you’re like, wow, that’s special.
WS: What role does wine play in your restaurants?
NS: Understanding the wines, you can help guide the [dining] experience to make it even better. And we do that education with our kitchen staff, so they go through a wine class every week with our somms to understand the art of food and wine and the pairing. It also helps them as they’re cooking a dish to know, “OK, well if I put too much acid in the sauce, or if this isn’t balanced right, or this is burnt,” how that affects what is sitting in a glass and what people are eating, so it comes together as a full experience.
WS: Have you discovered any pairings during your time in the restaurant that surprised you?
NS: Our “foie-noli” that we do, it’s a cannoli shell with a foie gras mousse and pistachios, and with a 15-year-old aged Marco De Bartoli Marsala, it’s this beautiful bite and sip. There’s not a ton of great aged Marsala out there like what you think of [with] Madeira and Sherry. So that was a fun eye-opening experience.
WS: How have you seen D.C.’s food scene change?
NS: Within the past five years, neighborhoods have developed, people are doing great things in different pockets that never happened before. So you have a great Vietnamese restaurant or a Filipino restaurant or Eastern European, all these places that are not your steak house or French bistro … The city has definitely expanded its reach and diversity.
WS: Tell us about your upcoming project, Officina.
NS: It’s big, it’s fun, it’s got multiple components. This is three different levels and three different places to go; it’s a place that you could come and have coffee in the morning and a croissant or brioche with granita, you could come back and have lunch in the trattoria, you could have drinks [on] the rooftop at night after a concert. So there’s something for everybody all day long that’s happening in the space, but they’re all different experiences that tie into one core nucleus.
Want to stay up on the latest news and incisive features about the world’s best restaurants for wine? Sign up now for our free Private Guide to Dining e-mail newsletter, delivered every other week. Plus, follow us on Twitter at @WSRestoAwards and Instagram at @WSRestaurantAwards.