Last October, Washington, D.C., restaurateur and chef Nick Stefanelli gifted District residents with Officina, a three-floor trattoria, café, and market. The name, which translates to “workshop,” deftly describes the venture, which marries craft and creativity in various outlets. From a library of Italian liqueur and a specialty product shop to an expansive outdoor terrace and more traditional dining area, Officina is capitalizing on its mixed formats and Italian roots.
The new establishment already carries a certain cachet; Stefanelli’s other concept, Masseria, garnered a Michelin star for its fresh take on specialties from Italy’s Puglia region.
Now Officina stands to expand his reach to new dayparts; the all-day affair resides in The Wharf, a handsome new development on the city’s Southwest Waterfront.
Here, Stefanelli offers a tour of his loving ode to Italian gastronomy.
With a thriving fine-dining restaurant to your credit, what made you switch gears with this concept?
There has always been this fire in me to create a casual place where you could have a beautiful bowl of bucatini. Then a long while back, I was traveling around the bottom of the peninsula, in Puglia, where my grandfather emigrated from and saw these great butcher shops that had restaurants attached to them. I was infatuated with that concept. I started conceptualizing Officina before Masseria happened, but Masseria took over and this sat on the backburner in my mind.
When the opportunity came up to finally create Officina, I jumped on it. We were doing all this great bread production in-house at Masseria in two little tiny ovens and realized we could re-create this inside the market but on a grander scale. We suddenly had the infrastructure to do a lot of the things we were doing, but this allowed us to do them better and to be able to bring them to consumers.
Give us a floor-by-floor tour.
On our first level we have a café, which also serves as our main bar. You can get coffee, pastries, and sandwiches during the day and order from the full dinner menu later. The floodplain that the wharf sits on gives us a natural separation in the space, and the [lower portion] serves as the market, Mercato. There we have a butcher shop, cheese, salumeria, bakery, pasta production, retail wine shop, grab-and-go prepared food, and Italian specialties.
There’s an architectural staircase with our wine cellar built into it, so the wine cellar appears to draw you up to the next floor. You enter that floor at our five-seat bar plus lounge, Saloto. That opens up into the main dining room, which also has a terrace and private dining space.
You take an elevator up to the third floor. On that level, there’s a small kitchen for private events and another private dining room. The dining area opens up to a 3,500-square-foot terraza, which has a full bar and overlooks the river and the historic fish market. There are fire pits, blankets, and heaters, so it’s like an outdoor living room where you can sit back pre- or post-dinner, drink a great glass of champagne, have an aperitivo, smoke a cigar.
At Mercato, you’ve handpicked items to emulate those butcher shops you fell in love with in Puglia. What do you keep in stock?
Everything in that market is something we cook with. If you’re sitting down for dinner and love your steak, you can buy one downstairs to take home. You like the bottle of wine you’re drinking or the cheese you’re tasting? We can get them for you.
If you wanted to cook sweetbreads at home, they’re hard to find outside of a restaurant, but we sell them. Same with whole, dry-aged Muscovy duck, porterhouse, and beef tongue. And if we don’t have it, we can source it directly within a day or so. We’ve become a great source for home cooks.
What kind of research went into launching Saloto, your lounge dedicated to the Italian liqueur, amaro?
At Masseria, we’re constantly sourcing old bottles of wine from collectors and auctions, and we began coming across really interesting vintage spirits and amaro. I was introduced to [Chicago-based bartender and proprietor of Sole Agent, a broker of rare and vintage spirits] Alex Bachman, and he helped us start to source great product. We began stocking old bottles of Campari and making vintage Negroni cocktails. People loved them. It snowballed into a big obsession.
As we were putting together Officina’s programming, we wanted something truly unique, and it naturally took shape. Saloto basically translates to “living room” in Italian, and it’s a really beautiful entertaining space with big leather chairs and a sense of masculinity. We have five decades worth of both Averna and Cynar; you can taste Campari from the ’50s. We allow people to be experimental and try an ounce of this, an ounce of that. It’s this great experience of tasting history and learning what time has done to an ingredient.
Amaro seems to be having a moment.
Coming from an Italian family, for me it’s always been a digestivo, or something you take a chilled shot of after lunch on the beach. A lot of the bartenders—people like Alex Bachman who have pushed the cocktail movement—have brought it to light. There’s always been a place for it, but now it’s become more desirable to people as they get to experience its beauty and diversity—from Fernet-Branca to Campari.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m figuring it out as we grow, but I bounce around. I like to be at Officina during the day, then head to Masseria for dinner service. A great mentor of mine, Ashok Bajaj, touches every restaurant every day, every single service. He’s always in the right place at the right time with all the right answers. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m trying. Maybe one day.