Greetings, fellow travelers and diplomats. It’s been awhile.
This past year, since I last posted, has been quite a year for me, as I know it has been for the rest of you. As we started to re-emerge (briefly) last summer from the first and most severe changes to life during COVID-19, living life in the present certainly took precedence for me over documenting it in writing. After the world shifted yet again as summer kicked off, I’ve finally been able to overcome my writer’s block to continue sharing stories of culinary excellence with all of you.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants, their employees, and patrons were forced to radically shift the way they do business. COVID-19 mitigation efforts stretched restaurants’ capacity to deliver both impeccable food and service, so I had become accustomed to less than stellar dining experiences – yet the joy I had in dining was all the more special and precious, a rare treat to go out and be with loved ones. Since COVID-19 restrictions radically changed dining during the pandemic, some of what I will write is obsolete, but it’s been interesting to see some of the ways in which dining (and we) have been forever changed.
So here goes.
Washington, DC’s Masseria showed me that a true Michelin dining experience could persist in late 2020 in spite of COVID (and nearly unintelligible servers whose speech was muffled by masks).
I must admit that I hadn’t done my research on Masseria before the visit – partly to come in without expectation, but mostly because I fully trusted the judgment of my then significant other, who is as big – if not bigger – a foodie than this Culinary Diplomat herself.
Located near Union Market in a gentrifying former industrial neighborhood with other trendy eateries and a distillery, Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s Masseria marries a spacious Italian farm aesthetic with the elegance of dedicated service and perfect touches that give away the restaurant’s secret – this is no rustic countryside cafe. It might attempt to look unassuming, but the food is so exquisite, delicately styled, and nuanced that it could only come from a classically trained chef. At first look, you’ll notice a cute, stylized version of your typical urban center’s farm to table restaurant, but this is no cookie-cutter knock off. The interior dining room has somewhat of a Restoration Hardware vibe with its rustic-chic decor, though its exterior courtyard is a cute urban oasis.
Since our visit took place during the 3rd (? of what has seemed like 80) COVID waves, we had no paper menu (or QR code). So we had no knowledge or expectations of what we would be served. We thought that at least we would have some small bites and perhaps a glass of wine or two. Ultimately, it was probably better that we came with no expectations, because Masseria delivered us a full, fantastic, pre-COVID worthy, nine course tasting menu. That, as one might actually expect, carried with it a mysterious but Michelin-worthy receipt. I was grateful for the indulgence, and most grateful for the company.
The meal began with a palate cleansing amuse bouche of a smoked potato broth topped with chive oil.
Next were two antipasti courses – these were no antipasti from your Nonna’s Italian restaurant. I typically expect antipasti to consist of charcuterie, olives, perhaps some pickles, peppers, maybe a cheese, or perhaps hearts of palm. These antipasti, however, were dainty appetizers whose robust, complex flavors belied their diminutive size.
The first antipasti course consisted of Maitake mushroom broth with Canederli mushroom dumplings (traditionally made of bread and Speck) from Trentino-Alto Adige in Northern Italy. Sidebar – the Trentino-Alto Adige region also has really great pinot Grigio and other dry white wines – with far more mineralogy and complexity than your bland, exported, mass-produced Italian Pinot Grigio. In addition to the Canederli, our first antipasti plate featured a miniature beef tartare (Carne Cruda) completed with truffle aioli and dehydrated egg yolk, shaved black truffles. The third and final first antipasto consisted of the best, tiny (you get the theme?) Foccacia topped with oven dried tomatoes (labeled tomato fondue on the tasting menu).
Instead of a bread basket, Masseria dedicated our second course to a trio of savory stuffed breads. Again, this might sound like cozy farm fare, or just a light indulgence. Instead, I found myself saying that the meal could have ended there, and I’d be satisfied. The rustico Lecchese consisted of a béchamel and tomato-stuffed puff pastry. A savory take on the typically sweet bombolone (think: doughnut hole’s classier Italian cousin) was an umami bomb filled with Caciocavallo cheese, porcini mushrooms, and Parmesan. OK, so the third ‘bread’ item was really a dark flatbread crisp topped with a very smooth interpretation of Giardiniera and a ‘lacto fermented turnip’. Lacto-fermented – was that necessary? They could have just called it pickled in milk. Maybe not the best ring. Regardless, it tasted far better than the average, boring turnip. If Giardiniera is unfamiliar to you, just think of it as an Italian (or Italian-Chicagoan) pickle relish with an oil base, often made with peppers, carrots, and celery. This entire bread-based antipasti trio was served with a small, whole burrata topped with Ossetian caviar (yum) and tiny Cipollini onions.
Since we hadn’t seen our menu in advance, our next course was a mystery. Would it be another small bite? Actually, yes; in this case, Octopus substituted for a more typical fish course. Our tentacle (sorry if that sounds unappetizing, I assure you it wasn’t, though this course was the only one in which an item was less than perfect (mine seemed slightly tough). It was served with capers, a small potato, and fresh Oregano.
Our next course was an Optional supplement of seared foie gras accompanied by a small foie gras mousse and chestnut tartlet. If you’ve followed this blog, you may recall that Foie Gras is probably my most surprising favorite delicacy (surprising because I’m not usually a fan of mystery meat, especially organ meat). This pairing was fantastic, and the seared Foie Gras, while characterized as a portion for one (do. You two really want to share?), was pretty sizable. Had we known that we had no less than five more courses to go, we might have opted out to prevent sheer gluttony. But the Calories were worth it!
Course five was the first of two pasta courses (two!). The Foglia d’Ulivo (olive leaf) lived up to its namesake, as it was simple, rolled pasta dressed simply with chickpeas, shaved Pecorino Romano cheese, and shaved truffles. Course six was a heartier braided pasta characteristic of the island of Sardinia served with local goat ragu and more shaved Pecorino. Goat can be hit or miss for me, but this braised sauce lacked any gaminess whatsoever. It was rich and filling.
Our ‘main’ and seventh course served Vitello (veal) three ways: loin, cheek, and sweetbreads. I’ve tried a lot of, let’s say interesting, meats in my day, but this was my first of the sweetbread. The texture was a bit off-putting for me, but it was well flavored and worth a try. I did happily donate the rest of my sweetbread to my significant other. The veal cheek was my favorite of the three veal stylings, as it was so tender and dense. The tenderloin also was perfectly cooked and full of flavor. All were served atop a potato mousseline. As no multi-course Italian meal is complete without wine, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we had a fantastic, dry white wine with our antipasti and octopus courses and a glass of a smooth, haunting Barolo with our heartier pastas and veal.
I would have been (again) impressed and delighted if the meal had ended there. But onto dessert – again, two courses (as dessert should be). The first course was apple-themed (Mela), which centered on a slice of roast apple but most importantly for me, was rich and creamy with a Crema de la Nonna gelato, green apple sorbet, and Zabaglione.
The final dessert course ended as I wish every fine meal would – with chocolate. The baked mousse Torta Al Cioccolato was accompanied by tiramisu gelato, intense dulce de leche caramel, and cacao nibs.
While I can’t compare my Masseria experience with dining at that establishment before COVID-19 or more recently since reopening, I can say with confidence that Masseria offered the most fantastic dining experience for me of 2020, despite COVID, and even so, it stands out among a solid field. I’m lucky to be speaking with the experience of a number of truly wonderful establishments under my belt for that year.