One afternoon last week, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj played a little serving plate Tetris with the flashy new toy at his latest rebranded restaurant. Bajaj has imported an antipasti trolley for Modena, a Northern Italian place downtown that replaced long-running Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca over the weekend, and he was looking for a place for a rectangular plate to fit among the bowls and circular dishes that hold family-style portions of salads and appetite whetters like marinated olives, panzanella, and a ricotta tart that will act as a static base for seasonal produce.
The antipasti trolley is the biggest selling point for Modena and also the biggest challenge for the staff under John Melfi, the opening chef at Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola Mare who says he knew he’d eventually reunite with Bajaj when he left his post at decorated power dining spot the Oval Room.
Last week, while Bajaj and general manager Steve London were rearranging plates, Melfi was examining how the dramatic presentation-on-wheels would work. He plans to have one or two dedicated food runners overseeing the trolley, which will roll up to tables when possible and dispense plates to multiple tables when business gets heavy. Portion sizes and pours of finishing oils and vinegars from Emilia-Romagna will vary depending on how many snacks a table orders — there are options for three ($15), five ($18), or seven ($20) antipasti.
Four weeks after entering the kitchen, Melfi has added an extra step or two to most every element of service. He wants to marry high-end Northern Italian ingredients (Balsámico of Modena, Parmigiano Reggiano, mortadella) with produce from local farms while bringing in modern techniques like using an iSi canister to turn bagna cauda dip into foam for fried artichokes. His staff is making two kinds of focaccia and baking amaretti cookies for petit fours. So there was a lot of training to do in a short amount of time.
“I don’t want to say everybody’s turned upside down, but we’re pushing everyone out of their comfort zone,” Melfi says.
On his end, Melfi has had to design menus for antipasti, charcuterie and cheese, lunch, a fixed bar lunch ($20-$25), dinner, and dessert.
He’s keeping an eye on what flies of the trolley, keeping a running tally of the “greats and the not-so-greats” so he can adjust accordingly. One of his personal favorites is the focaccia di recco, two paper-thin sheets of dough stuffed with roasted beets, walnuts, and gorgonzola dulce and baked in the pizza oven. While the menu if packed with primo ingredients, Melfi doesn’t want it to be stuffy, so he describes the cheesy dish as the Italian fine-dining equivalent of a quesadilla.
Bajaj has billed Modena as a restaurant that won’t be beholden to tradition, and Melfi plans to prove that out with dishes like a grilled calamari appetizer. Squid stuffed with sausage is familiar, but the additions of avocado, red sorrel, and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette studded with cold-water periwinkle snails from Maine are not.
One of Melfi’s pasta courses, a risotto Nero fritto misto, gives customers two popular seafood dishes in one. He makes the black risotto with roasted black garlic, squid ink, and an extra glug of olive oil because he upholds the cardinal rule that separates dairy from seafood. The portion of fried seafood on top will follow whatever’s coming in; Melfi has mentioned lobster, sugar toads, and sea cucumber as possibilities. A red oil packed with Spanish chorizo and espelette pepper creates a red ring around the inkwell at the center of the plate.
Melfi has also turned pasta e fagioli from a bean-laden soup into a saucy pasta dish with rigatoni, local coco rubico beans, pancetta, and San Marzano tomatoes. For entrees, he’s exchanged the traditional veal chop for slices of a veal roast taken from the eye of the ribeye. The red meat comes with crispy sweetbreads, Chanterelle mushrooms, pancetta, and a fonduta made from sharp, rare Castelmangno cheese.
Changes to the interior aren’t as dramatic as they were at Olivia, Bajaj’s recent turnover of the former Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter. Abstract spherical light fixtures still hang from the ceiling like silver stars, but there are new planters full of green plants hanging above the bar. A new paint job called for lots of teal and grey. There are new tables and chairs, too.
Bajaj says he wanted the space to be more “intimate” with more “sex appeal.” One new art piece is a black-and-white photo of a woman in a black brassiere housing pasta.
The sleek presentation comes naturally to Melfi, who says flowers and microgreens are “kind of my thing.”
“I like to be really pretty,” he explains.