It's Official Friend of DCWD AB's birthday and since we've all spent the better part of the past few months flirting with going to Masseria, we decide this is the best occasion for it.
Damn, this place is pretty. If Masseria were airlifted out of its spot a block over from Union Market hidden among dingy warehouses and a bank and placed in Logan Circle, the Washington food scene would be awash in lavish pieces about this gorgeous set-up. Stage one is an open patio, with large lounge couches and patio chairs around tables and fire pits, all the better to nurse a cocktail or a cigar. Stage two is a partially covered patio with an ornate tile floor, filled with garden party style tables; on this night, it's been transformed into a semi-private space where two full long tables dine.
It's sort of funny that the actual dining room (stage three, for those keeping track) is probably the most pedestrian of it all, and is still quite lovely. A huge open kitchen with bar seating draws your attention as the space - a beautiful mix of glass and concrete and brick and wood - unfolds, lined with half-booths and filled in with assorted tables. That's maybe the only downside: the table selection in the center of the room is a bit odd. Get placed in the wrong table and you might be subject to some tight turns and fly-by dishes from the always-be-moving staff.
We decide to go all in and opt for the five course menu, which allows us to grab most everything on the menu. Here's a quick run down and some short sentences about everything we eat.
To start, a slate of quick bites: a potato bombolini, provolone arancini, semolina and tomato paste, and squid ink breadsticks. The freaking bombolini itself was a highlight.
Here are two first courses that couldn't have been more different both in expectations and reality: I order a brodetto of beef tripe and lobster, whereas ALEX orders a simple grilled white asparagus with bottarga and a sorrel cream. Yes, the former has perfectly cooked lobster and a rich tomato broth. Sure, the tripe acts like a tendony pasta. But it's the latter's singular crisp flavors that are out-of-the-park good.
Similarly, sweet breads with radicchio are wonderful and smoother than any I've had in recent memory. But it pales in comparison to the dish that everyone can get behind: a delicate cobia crudo flaked with fennel and blood orange and chile that is mesmerizing. Also, you're never going to believe this but the pasta at this highly touted Italian restaurant is the incredible and consistently stellar part of the evening. This one was my favorite: maccheroni molinari with venison ragu. If you've had the rigatoni at Red Hen and loved it, this one might be even better. The second pasta dish of this round - a simple linguine with Masseria spicy xo sauce, olive oil, and garlic - is clean and straightforward, in a good way.
Our last pasta dish is just as sumptuous: an egg ravioli with crawfish. Beware: this dish is one large ravioli making it hard to share. Also making it hard to share? How delightful and rich the bite is. The veggies at the table try hard to convince me that the plate of mushrooms, turnips, and kale is comparable. But it isn't. Sorry.
The rest of the entrees all have their nice moments, ranging from solid to remarkable, though all something short of hyperbolic. A striped bass filet is wonderfully buttery; a dish of artichokes with blood orange and lemon makes up for previous simplistic veggie dishes; and a twin dealing of red meat - the lamb loins with sunchoke and spinach, and slices of suckling pig with escarole and fava beans - bring similar experiences: tender, traditional, straightforward, with the pig being a slight favorite for its delicate use of peas.
As for dessert, we try all three: bombolini with bits of rhubarb and lemon ricotta; a crostata with fruit marmalade and malted milk gelato; and a baked chocolate mousse with tiramisu gelato. Pick the third.
Perhaps not daring, but the cleanest, brightest, and most striking Italian food we've had in a while. Add in the setting, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more convincing debut.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Cost: $$$$$ (out of 5) (more than $100 for two)