Perhaps the most gorgeous place to drink in all of Washington is the rooftop crowning Nick Stefanelli’s Officina. It’s certainly the prettiest perch at the Wharf, the glittering new Southwest DC development with no shortage of beautiful spaces. Tricked out with couches, fire pits, swaths of flowers and greenery, and soon a retractable roof, it gives you a cornerstone view of the Potomac—creaking sailboats, soaring planes, and all.
But that view is just the start of Stefanelli’s ambitious tri-level project. On the ground floor, there’s a cafe open from breakfast till dinner plus a market, butcher counter (check out those dry-aging steaks hanging behind the glass), bakery, and wine shop. Upstairs is the centerpiece—a chic trattoria and bar—and above that are a glass box of a private dining room and that open-air urban paradise.
Stefanelli, who also runs the stylish Italian tasting room Masseria near Union Market, made his name under some of the city’s top Italian chefs. He spent years with pasta master Roberto Donna at the late Galileo, then moved on to a long run with Fabio Trabocchi’s group. Masseria isn’t hurting for attention—it got a Michelin star this year and landed at number ten on our last 100 Very Best Restaurants list—but Officina puts Stefanelli on a far more prominent stage.
Let’s start in the loud, packed-from-the-start trattoria. It’s breathtakingly good-looking, with acid-green banquettes, a floor tiled in stars, and a gleaming chef’s counter. Walking in from the sterile Wharf exterior feels like bumping into Sophia Loren at an office happy hour.
Parts of the menu are also breathtakingly expensive. An entrée of octopus featured two small tentacles—tender and juicy, thanks to an olive-oil confit and a turn on the plancha, but almost laughably puny (until you see the $32 charge). A $39 mixed grill of seafood came with a small filet of swordfish, two prawns, and a single calamari sliced into pieces. My problem with the 60-day-dry-aged rib eye wasn’t size or the $68 price—it was the alarming lack of savor. Far better: the lemony, crisp-skinned chicken under a brick and the veal cheek parmigiana, about as ideal a parm as you could ask for, with just enough cheese and robust red sauce.
I’d home in on the pastas, which are mostly made in-house and quite good, save for an occasional heavy hand in the salt. There’s agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and a hint of lemon, tagliatelle tossed with ruddy Bolognese, and best of all, Stefanelli’s (and my) favorite pasta dish ever—bucatini amatriciana. The thick, hollow strands are studded with house-cured guanciale along with pecorino and red onion. Stefanelli says his lobster pasta is an ode to the elegant stylings of former mentor Roberto Donna—but it’s memorable more for the glossy tomato sauce than for the scant nubs of crustacean. Carbonara, finished with a perfect yolk, looks the part but is gloppy on the fork.
Fried calamari might not sound like the most exciting of the appetizers, but it’s the menu’s can’t-miss dish. The kitchen coats the squid with the same flour mix Stefanelli uses for fried chicken, flash-fries it, and heaps it into a mess of pickled cherry peppers, charred radicchio, and a chili-stoked saffron cream. You could order that and the focaccia—plus a beautifully balanced Negroni—and call it dinner.
Speaking of drinks, lovers of all things bitter need to get themselves to what Stefanelli calls the amaro library. The chef is obsessed with the herbal Italian liqueurs, and the midcentury-cool space shows off his 135-bottle collection. You can taste your way through four decades of Cynar, a liqueur made from artichokes, or sample a 1930s-era Montenegro. It’s a national-level destination.
Downstairs, the cafe offers breakfast plus snacks and sandwiches, including a fabulous vinegar-painted Italian cold-cut panino and a rustic porchetta with broccoli rabe. There’s also—don’t yawn—a killer kale Caesar with fried chicken skins for crunch. Sadly, the carbonara doesn’t get any better when it’s molded into fritters down here.
Then there’s the market, filled with an array of products both welcome (a sumptuous square of Robiola cheese, freshly extruded pastas, a stunning selection of olive oils) and befuddling. (Seriously, is anyone buying that gigantic $40 loaf of bread? Didn’t anyone taste the bitter foie gras torchon?) That and the cafe are overseen by Dan O’Brien, the former Seasonal Pantry chef, who excels with soups, stews, and pasta sauces. You might blanch at spending 20 bucks for a pint of Bolognese—until you get home and house it in one sitting.
There’s so much that’s singular about Officina that you should definitely stop in for a visit. But for dinner? Unless you don’t mind paying special-occasion prices, that’s less of a sure bet.
1120 Maine Ave., SW; 202-747-5222; Cafe open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Trattoria open daily for dinner.
Neighborhood: The Wharf.
Dress: It’s a pretty see-and-be-seen crowd, so don’t slum it.
Noise level: Turned up to 11.
Best dishes: Calamari; focaccia; agnolotti; bucatini amatriciana; chicken under a brick; veal cheek parmigiana; cold-cut sandwich; porchetta sandwich; kale Caesar; Negroni.
Price range:Cafe, small plates $3 to $9, larger plates $6 to $18. Trattoria, antipasti $5 to $15, pastas $18 to $28, entrées $27 to $145 (for a 40-ounce steak).
This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.