When chef Nicholas Stefanelli recently traveled to Greece to visit the birthplace of his ancestors, he was surprised by what he found: the old farmhouse was no longer in Greece.
“My family is from a Black Sea region which is now Turkey,” he said, referring to border changes that occurred in the 1920s. “Exploring the historical part of my Greek side has been very revealing to me. As I traveled through northern Greece it became apparent that there was a lot to be said here. I walked through, dug, understood how the food diaspora passed through ancient times and got to where we are today.
This surprising geopolitical education is what Stefanelli, the Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur behind the Washington, D.C. Italian restaurant Masseria, wants to bring to his new Greek restaurant, Philotimo, opening January 20 at Midtown Center.
To do this, Stefanelli, who is half-Greek and half-Italian, traveled extensively across the country, connecting with modern suppliers, and researching the eating habits of ancient Greece to find the roots of multicultural regional dishes. from the country. Take pasta, for example. At times, Sicily and Puglia were part of Greece, while Corfu and Crete were part of the Venetian Empire. This is why pasta, such as kritharaki or orzo, became part of Greek cuisine.
“We really want to tell this story of food and wine, and really show how complex there is when you move through the region,” he said. “It’s part of our process to open people’s eyes to the depth and diversity of things they don’t necessarily see.”
And at Philotimo – a word that has no direct translation, but is the pride one takes in offering hospitality – Stefanelli lets the diners take charge of the roadmap. The Maryland-born chef, trained by Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Roberto Donna (Galileo), Fabio Trabocchi (Maestro) and Ashok Bajaj (Bibiana), takes care of the trip’s bookends.
To start the meal, diners are offered a selection of mezze dishes like savory loukoumades or Greek donut holes, filled with taramasalata (fish roe dip) and topped with golden osetra caviar. There will also be traditional stuffed vine leaves (dolmades) and sesame bread rings (koulori); plus a rustic sourdough bread sprinkled with roasted carob, the chocolate plant often eaten in times of famine; and a cauliflower croquette (pseftokeftedes) topped with mint, dill and kasseri cheese.
Then, the guests can choose their following three dishes: pasta, vegetables, fish or meat. (If they want three meat dishes, they can have three meat dishes.) Expect hand-rolled barley pasta (skioufihta) with lamb broth and mizithra cheese, which one found in Crete; the shell-shaped pasta gogges that you see in Corfu and Puglia; and Middle Eastern manti dumplings reminiscent of Black Sea border movements, which are stuffed with veal and topped with browned butter and optional black truffles.
Many vegetables and meats are cooked over the fire or candied in olive oil – a Greek staple dating back to the ancient olive trees of Mount Taygetos – as opposed to animal fat or butter. Aginares a la polita, or braised artichokes with root vegetables and dill, is a dish often seen during the fasting season of Lent. Wild mushrooms, found during the winter months in the north, are roasted and served with olives, oregano and feta (manitaria). Onions (as opposed to summer peppers) are stuffed with rice and baked.
“We are taking some of these cooking techniques and applying them to new ingredients that belong to the realm of Greek gastronomy, but [the combination] isn’t necessarily thought about because it’s outside of traditional seasonality,” he said. “We keep the heart and soul of the dish, but we have fun with the presentation and the ingredients.
A traditional porridge used for breakfast at Easter is the origin of the presentation of pitsouni magiritsa, which includes two ways of squab, served in and with a congee-like rice soup. Sinagride plaki includes baked Madai snapper with tomatoes and capers. And for the arnaki limonato, they slow cook Shenandoah Valley lamb with spinach and Jerusalem artichokes.
Finally, diners are offered a selection of desserts resembling the petit fours found in traditional pastries, such as gastrin with mixed nuts, the original baklava, made with honey, molasses and phylo dough; a rolled wafer filled with chocolate that looks like a cigarette; cinnamon and walnut cake (karidopita) topped with mastic ice cream; and an assortment of cheeses.
The meal can be accompanied only by Greek wines or wines from around the world, from regions that the Greek Empire once touched like Georgia.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable with all the [Greek] grapes and pronunciations,” he said. “The buddy program allows us to open those doors and help people through. You will discover different styles of wine, different grape varieties that you may not have been used to or may not have seen before. And [for the international bottles] we have fun with how the land, the imprint of Greece, expanded and contracted and where they had an influence.
In fact, Stefanelli has big plans for the drinks side of Philotimo. The restaurant will have 4,000 bottles in its cellar, mostly from Greece, and around 800 on its list. Stefanelli is so invested in the past, present and future of Greek wine that he is launching an aging program which he hopes will permanently alter the way it is perceived around the world.
“There is this evolution happening in Greek wine. It’s almost like it’s at a nascent stage, even though they’ve been making wine for so long. It’s a bit like Sicily 15 years ago. You have these young winemakers coming in and taking over some of their family’s vineyards, and they’re going to work in different places like Burgundy and see the different techniques and bring them back and apply them to Greek grapes. There’s so much potential that I feel like I’m untapped.
The chef collaborated with design studio Group 7 on the layout of the restaurant, which features a foyer, white sandstone entrance, hand-woven rope chandeliers and seating in the dining room, bar, a chef’s counter and even inside the kitchen at a private table where the meal is decided according to the whims of the chef.
Stefanelli also owns the Italian trattoria and the market pharmacy and ancient foods, an online supplier of olive oils, honeys, herbs, olives and teas from Greek artisans. In the spring, it will open a companion café to Philotimo, which will serve Greek street food, coffees and wines.