Before opening Masseria, Chef Nicholas Stefanelli initially found his passion for food through his love of fashion.
At 18-years-old, the Maryland native first worked for a master tailor before eventually visiting Italian design schools, and it was there that he fell for the culinary arts. “Food was always a big part of my life growing up,” Stefanelli says. “But it wasn’t something that was seeping out into the streets like you see in Rome—people were just eating and drinking and having a good time like you don’t see here—so I kind of got bit by the bug.”
And although you can take the chef out of the tailor, Stefanelli remains inspired by his love of style. So much so that he instills this into everything he creates, including Masseria’s dishes (which earned the restaurant one of just 12 Michelin-stars in the DC area). Below, Chef Nicholas shared the ins and outs of approaching the culinary arts with style, evolution and a tasty appetite.
What’s the most inspiring aspect about creating your dishes in DC?
The one great thing we have in DC is that we have a genuine, true four-season rotation. Having winter, spring, fall and summer offers us the ability to be naturally stimulated to create things differently because things are always changing. Today I was walking my dogs and I saw a huge lavender bush—I was like, “you know what, I think we’re going to change our quail to squab and lavender.”
From concept to plating, what’s your process?
First you eat with your eyes, then you have the textures of how things feel in your mouth and then the smell of the dishes; so you can really start to play with it. A lot of our dishes continually evolve—we’ll tweak one thing here or there. Right now we have a pasta stuffed with artichoke, and we started getting wild garlic so we added that and chickpeas to the dish. I like to tell people I’ll break their heart sometimes when I take something off the menu, but I’ll give you a new reason to fall in love with us.
In terms of eating with our eyes first—how does that play into the way you incorporate style into your dishes?
There’s an old proverb from Sicily that sits on the top of our menu, and when I first read it I just thought it was so true, I couldn’t help but put that on as the credo of what we feel in the restaurant. It translates to, “you dress to please others, but you eat to please yourself.” You could wear sweatpants, but inherently you’d want to dress yourself for the visual pleasure of other people. That’s how we look at our dishes. We want that visual pleasure to be part of that whole experience. Having that creative feel, we can always rotate.
Are you inspired by one style icon or trend in specific?
I think there’s a ton of sensory things that inspire the presentation of a piece. Whether it’s a sauce splashing onto a plate to be a little more disruptive, or something that’s a little more classically fluid, like the draping of a cashmere scarf. When somebody says “silkiness” in terms of how a fabric might feel, that also gives you a sensory taste of something like a puree. When we created Masseria we wanted it to be more of an experience, and it does feel more “lifestyle” than simply just a restaurant.
Main Image: Scott Suchman