When Nicholas Stefanelli opened Masseria last year at 1340 4th St. NE, it was a unique entity — a free-standing, destination restaurant near Union Market. Since then, crowds have flocked to the chef's elevated Italian cuisine — served in three- to six- course tasting menus — as well as for cocktails and wine al fresco.
Eater caught up with the chef to talk about the ups and downs of his first year in business, including packed patios and first encounters with the D.C. heat.
Note: Masseria will be closed for summer break from August 30th through September 6th.
What's been the most exciting part of this past year at the restaurant?
It's been fun watching everything grow and evolve. You kind of have this plan on how things are going to be, but you're really never going to have the answer until you're in it watching it mature and evolve and grow as time passes.
What have guests responded to most on the menu?
I think people are a little more experimental because of the [multiple] courses. They'll take a chance on something they want to try, which has been nice. Like sweetbreads or tripe — the more "off menu" items that are on the menu because I love to eat them. So we have places for them, balancing the menu out.
I think we have a lot more people who like trying new things and opening up their eyes to new experiences, which is great to see. D.C. is evolving as a city and the food scene. And I think it's reflective in how people are ordering on the menus and trying different stuff.
So it sounds like people are going for more than just classic pasta dishes?
When I look at Masseria, the experience is like a road map. We'll take you as far as you want to travel, and if you don't want to go that far, we leave that part of the experience up to the guest. It's nice that people put themselves in our hands.
You've worked in restaurants before. What's it been like to branch out on your own?
There's a difference. But the five years I spent working with Ashok [Bajaj] at Bibiana — his mentorship really prepared me a lot for success when we opened up. There were things that became second nature that I learned from him that became part of our operational experience.
A lot on the operational side. The crucial part is the second nature piece. [I've] been cooking for 18 years and you are on your own, doing your thing. But now you have to worry about keeping lights on and payroll and doing all those things and balancing costing. All the kinds of things that take you away from the kitchen that would have been a pretty gigantic learning curve for us. It was really nice to have that foundation.
What's challenged you?
We still have things that have popped up that we hadn't experienced. We haven't gone [all the way] through summer yet. When we opened up in August last year, the weather was beautiful. We never had an issue with heat. Now we have this giant heat wave where nothing wants to work and we're now putting in extra air conditioning and trying to make the adjustments.
How has your location in Northeast D.C. affected business?
If it wasn't for the [Union Market] being open and what's happened, we wouldn't be able to do what we do here. So that kind of gave us the platform to be able to open up Masseria.
We're busy. It's the during the week business that's surprised me the most, especially in our courtyard area when the weather's really nice. We don't have any foot traffic, so we really didn't expect to be inundated with a lot of people coming out to enjoy cocktails.
We expected everybody who would be here to have reservations. We've had a big turnout from people just coming in to sit in the lounge and have drinks and wine and smoke cigars. That was one of the learning things with September.
When we opened in August we didn't really have a busy outdoor area for the patio itself. When spring hit, everyone knew who we were. They knew where we were. We said, 'oh my gosh - we need to staff this differently. We have to deal with this differently.'
What's the type of crowd been like?
As far as demographics, we have young people, we have old people. We have couples. We have girls night out. Every day is a different day for us. We have a great foundation of loyal repeat guests that come back and dine with us regularly, which is great. We kind of are in a neighborhood but we don't have residential around us.
Are you looking to change anything going forward?
We're in a good place to start to add to our programming. I think the structure and soul of who we are is pretty much set. Year two for us is going to be the fine-tuning of it. Just make it better and work on it everyday.