Masseria is a unique restaurant that actually looks like three restaurants in one. Set on a barren, industrial stretch of 4th St NE, although one block from Union Market, there was plenty of space to build the restaurant however they wanted. The front is an open courtyard lounge area with couches and some small tables. The first indoor dining room is all windows, even the part that is attached to the second indoor dining room. Finally, the back dining room, with the open kitchen, has no windows and mostly cinder block walls. It truly feels like a wine cellar.
We were lucky enough to eat in the “wine cellar” dining room. At Masseria, you choose a four or five course pre fixe menu. You do not have to choose one from each category, but your last course must be cheese or dessert. Cocktails are the best way to start a meal. We got The Toronto, with Dickel Rye, Fernet, a touch of sugar and a lemon twist. We also got the Count Camillo, with St. George Gin, Contratto Bianco Vermouth and Beet Infused Campari. I really enjoyed the sweet earthiness from the beets while Marnay liked how the sugar cut the bitterness from the Fernet in the Toronto.
We were served gratis arancini, potato doughnuts with mushroom powder, focaccia and a squid ink sesame breadstick that had some serious heat. Our first courses could not have been more different. Marnay got the cobia crudo with fennel, blood orange, basil, basil seeds and green chiles. The chiles were hot but the cold, raw slices of fish mercifully took out much of the punch. I got tender sweetbreads in a sweet and salty salsa benadetto with almonds. This was one of my favorite bites of the meal.
Our second course was pasta, which Masseria excels in. I got the linguine with XO sauce, olive oil, garlic and a handful of spicy breadcrumbs. XO sauce, which is a Chinese dried fish-based sauce, is one of the most delicious sauces on earth, so it makes perfect sense that an Italian chef would want to play around with it. The breadcrumbs soaked up the sauce and the housemade linguine had a good chew to it. It’s hard for me to decide between the linguine and the sweetbreads as my best bite. Marnay got the egg raviolo with Louisiana Crawfish, Olio Santo and Falanghina Zabliglione, possible the best looking dish of the night. It tastes best with all of the ingredients eaten together, in one bite. Leave any element out, however, and the dish just was not the same.
Another great presentation: Two “scarpettas” of semolina bread served in a cigar box, intended for the remaining pasta sauce.
The third courses are divided into fish, meat and vegetables. I went the vegetable route with the wild mushrooms, turnips, Tuscan kale and honey, and I am glad that I did. The meaty, umami-packed mushrooms certainly did not make us miss meat. Marnay’s striped bass with bacala, potatoes, black garlic and a brown butter sauce was a heavy misfire.
Dessert included more free bites, such as passionfruit sorbet with coconut crema and pineapple salsa. This was truly one of our favorite parts of the meal. I ordered a plate of poached rhubarb with lychee ricotta spuma, preserved lemon meringue and rhubarb sorbet. Marnay got the crostata al marmellata, which was a spiced pasta frolla, preserves, berries, malted milk gelato and almonds. We each really enjoyed our desserts. My favorite part was the cool, soft sorbet with the crispy meringue and the spuma eaten all together. Marnay liked how her dessert looked simple but clearly involved a tremendous amount of skill. Our check came along with cannoli and a housemade lemon gelee.
The only quibble I have with Masseria is that the servers tend to be absent most of the meal. This is a good thing in the sense that you are saved from unwanted intrusions, but it does lead to glasses being left empty for long periods of time.
Masseria is an experience with the food to match. It is not an “everyday” restaurant but for special occasions, it is a great choice.
Marnay: Linguine with XO sauce
Masseria: 1340 4th Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002
Closest Metro: Noma