Three weeks after opening Officina, chef Nicholas Stefanelli stands in red Nike high tops and a short-sleeved chef’s coat and explains how opening a restaurant is like working on a sports car. He had been through it once with his first place; Michelin-starred Masseria just turned 3. But this building, with all its moving parts, presents a more difficult track. “You’re constantly fine-tuning it,” he says. “You’re adjusting this here. Doing that there. Just constantly training.”
What began eight years ago as an idea for a combination butcher shop and trattoria has now been realized in a behemoth of a building on Washington’s booming Southwest waterfront. Officina (Oh-fee-she-nah) is three stories tall and contains five components: a cafe and a market with a butcher shop on the first floor; a bar and a dining room on the second floor; and a rooftop terrace.
The sports car comparison is fitting, and not just because it seems so Italian. Like a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, Officina boasts an eye-catching exterior, but the engine is rooted in pure craftsmanship. The name translates to “workshop” in English. Where as Masseria is Stefanelli’s gastronomic laboratory, Officina offers stripped-down dishes that let ingredients take precedent over flashy techniques.
The idea for Officina first struck Stefanelli when he was eating lunch at a “macelleria,” or butcher shop, somewhere in the heel of Italy’s boot-shaped borders. The Italian half of his family has heritage in the Puglia region, but another inspiration for the multi-purpose restaurant is closer to home. As a kid in Beltsville, Maryland, the chef remembers his family cooking with sausages, tomatoes, and tins of olive oil his parents would bring back from Italian markets in Baltimore.
“So it was kind of that nostalgic piece of what I did as a child growing up and this piece of having this culinary playground where people can source great meats, bottles of wine, olive oils, and just kind of everything,” Stefanelli says.
Nearly a month in, Stefanelli and his staff have been tuning the race car. The plan was never to serve the menu from the second-story trattoria to walk-ins at the first-floor cafe, but the demand has been so great that some dishes now get whisked down a flight of stairs after 5 p.m. The pre- and post-show rushes surrounding the Anthem nearby have created another challenge. Then there’s managing the different identities of each of Officina’s spaces, and directing the 115 or so employees it takes to keep the place running.
It has left Stefanelli looking exhausted. The bags under his eyes have bags. His right hand is bandaged after a run-in with a wine glass that shattered while he was polishing it. Barely a minute passes without a worker or a vendor stopping him with a question. Yet, Stefanelli is still mostly smiling his gap-toothed smile. He’s dreamed of this place opening for eight years. Now it’s a force of nature.
“It’s kind of like surfing, right? You go out in the ocean and you paddle all the way out, and it’s like, you’ve got to get on that wave now,” he says. “Once you get on it you’re either falling down or you’re going on a great ride.”
Here’s a look inside the dishes that explain the philosophy behind Officina.
Salumi: Officina’s selection of salumi speaks to Stefanelli’s respect for Italian products and the methods behind them. As the butcher shop evolves, he says, the market and trattoria will begin selling more and more items made in house. For now, the kitchen is curing its own pounded beef bresaola and pancetta (pork belly). Stefanelli likes to eat thin slices of the latter raw. “It’s one of my favorites because you get that little bit of meat and then the fat, like lardo but better,” he says. Other items such as prosciutto, mortadella, nduja, soppressata, and coppa are imported from Italy.
Ravioli: Pasta dumplings stuffed with veal pull from different corners of the building. Veal necks, shanks, and trimmings from the butcher shop are braised until tender and combined with carrots, celery, onions and Parmesan cheese to create the filling for pasta rolled out by hand in the trattoria kitchen. The ravioli are glazed in a butter-rosemary sauce, drizzled with veal braising liquid, and topped with 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano and parsley.
For a $95 supplement, the kitchen will shave white Alba truffles onto the pasta. When Stefanelli demonstrates this process, a rich, ethereal funk spreads throughout the room. “It gets this beautiful, earthy, garlicky perfume in the air that takes the dish and kind of transcends it into this unspeakable place that there’s not a word for,” Stefanelli says. “It’s beautiful.”
For Stefanelli, the ravioli represent his version of a dish he learned to make at Galileo right out of culinary school. “It’s like my ode to Roberto Donna, who kind of kicked me in the ass and got me moving forward,” Stefanelli says.
Bucatini all’Amatriciana: This noodle dish, featuring spaghetti-like strands that have a hole in the middle, shows off items from Officina’s market. “It’s a great cupboard pasta that I’ll always have the ingredients in my house,” Stefanelli says. The kitchen is still experimenting with making its own bucatini, which undergoes a 36-hour drying process, but Stefanelli says it’s been hard to beat the bucatini for sale downstairs. Officina imports it from Gragnano, Italy, a town near Pompeii where pasta is made with mineral-rich water filtered through volcanic soil.
The bucatini is tossed with cured pork (guanciale or pancetta), red onions, a mixture of red chile and cracked black pepper, and Pecorino Romano cheese. Traditionally this dish is made without tomato, but Stefanelli says he likes including it for added acid and sweetness. “There’s some really bold purists that would, like, throw you off a roof [and say] ‘This isn’t it,’” he says.
Grillata mista: When presented fresh off the screaming hot plancha, or flat top, the mixed seafood grill is incredibly aromatic. Stefanelli goes so far as to say that the preparation is so simple, the chefs can’t take much credit for the dish’s success. Swordfish from the Mediterranean, calamari from Rhode Island, and prawns from North Carolina get a quick sear along with a splash of olive oil, lemon and herbs.
Dry-aged steak: Here’s where the butcher shop takes center stage. Daniel O’Brien, the Seasonal Pantry chef who worked with Stefanelli at Bibiana, has returned from Colorado to oversee the market and meat-cutting program. Officina sells 60-day dry-aged beef, typically getting the meat from purveyors 20-25 days into the process. Grilled ribeye steaks come in 20-ounce ($68) or 40-ounce ($135) portions. They’re finished with an aromatic olive oil — flavored with crushed garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley — as well as balsamic vinegar. The chef adds a sprinkle of Fiore di Sale imported from the Sicilian town of Trapani, which is available for purchase in little jars at the market.
Paper plane: A second-story “salotto,” a sitting room or salon, houses Stefanelli’s library of rare amaro, a bitter liqueur found throughout Italy. Beverage director John Filkins is tasked with finding applications for it at Officina. “Traditionally it was in each of the little regions or cities, and people just kind of made it in their backyards,” Filkins explains. “It’s made with local herbs, spices, basically whatever was around the house or at market at the time.” Filkins says a paper plane cocktail, equal parts lemon, aperol, bourbon, and amaro, speaks to the style of cocktails at Officina. That means taking a simple drink and utilizing different varieties of amaro to amplify bitter or citrus flavors.