It would be the first Thanksgiving for Nicholas and Romie Stefanelli in their century-old row house in DC’s up-and-coming Atlas District, and on a sunny November morning the chef had some cooking to do. The next day, 20 guests were gathering at their home—in addition to the 275 patrons awaiting Thanksgiving dinner at DC’s popular Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca.
Tall orders like these are all in a day’s work for 31-year-old Stefanelli, who was named 2010 Rising Culinary Star by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Having quickly climbed the ranks at some of the area’s top restaurants, the Maryland native has little time for entertaining given his six-day work week.
Nick and Romie were introduced by mutual friends in Dewey Beach. They married in 2008 and settled into a condo in Virginia, but Stefanelli soon tired of the commute into DC—and the cramped kitchen. “Once I tried to make a seven-course dinner in the condo,” he recalls. “Guys were coming in with sides of beef and I only had four burners. It was a very long day.” The couple eventually decided to search for a house in the District, a process that would take a year and 60-plus visits with their real estate agents.
When they saw the renovated Northeast row house, it was love at first sight. Developer Ryan Loughlin of Rainbow Properties had created an open plan on the main level and added central air conditioning and a modern kitchen. These upgrades, combined with such period details as original moldings and an exposed brick wall, cinched the deal. “The house had almost everything we wanted,” says Romie, an account director at a marketing firm. They bought it in December 2010.
The main level houses a living area, dining room and kitchen. Family photographs and mementoes collected on their travels dot the walls and tabletops. Upstairs in the master bedroom the Stefanellis removed crawl space to create higher ceilings and added built-in cabinetry. A second bedroom doubles as a guest room and home office.
The house has a small yard where in warmer months the couple grows rosemary, tomatoes and “a plethora of basil,” says Stefanelli. “I think I made four months’ worth of pesto this year and it all grew back.”
With a mother of Greek descent and an Italian father, it is no wonder that Nick grew up in a home where vegetable gardens and cooking from scratch were the norm. But it was fashion—not cuisine—that first lured him to Italy. On a trip to Milan to enroll in fashion school, he got hooked on food instead. “I saw food culture there that the U.S. didn’t have,” he explains. “I wanted to become a part of that.” So he enrolled in Maryland’s L’Academie de Cuisine, landed an externship at Roberto Donna’s legendary Galileo and, later, worked with chef Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro and New York’s Fiamma. “I’ve had very good teachers who gave me some good background,” he understates.
In 2009, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj tapped Stefanelli to open Bibiana. Two years later, the restaurant earned a three-star review from Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, who confessed to taking “personal communion with pasta” under Stefanelli’s spell.
Adept at putting a spin on the classics, the chef explores “variables in cultural identity.” Lately, he’s been turned on by seaweed he discovered on a trip to Shanghai. “When you travel, you take back what you learned and apply it. These seaweeds give you an earthy flavor and tie in nicely with mushrooms. They’re not necessarily an Italian ingredient, but there is seaweed in the Mediterranean,” he reasons. “I like being able to put a twist on different things.”
On Sundays, he and Romie catch up with friends and Stefanelli works out on long rides with a cycling team. He also devotes time to worthy causes, from feeding DC’s hungry to promoting school nutrition. On January 22, he will participate in Sunday Night Suppers—when 30 local chefs will cook $500-a-person dinners in private homes; the proceeds will benefit Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen.
For now, the Stefanellis are enjoying their new home and looking forward to what the future might bring. In five years, Stefanelli muses, perhaps he’ll have his own restaurant. “Whether it’s with the group I’m with or on my own, time will tell. I’m at a good place right now, and I have the ability to grow.”
1 pound peeled chestnuts
1 small celery root, diced
6 shallots, peeled and sliced
10 button mushroom,s sliced
3 quarts of chicken stock
½ pound butter
2 bay leaves
2 cups of Marsala or Madeira
Place a medium-sized stock pot over medium heat and add the butter. Once butter begins to foam, add the chestnuts and gently toast in two or three batches, being careful not burn the burn the butter. Once all the chestnuts have been toasted, remove from the pot and add the shallots, mushrooms and celery root and cook until golden brown. Then deglaze the pot with the Maderia or Marsala. Reduce the wine by half and add the chestnuts, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the liquid to a simmer and let cook for about 45 minutes or until the chestnuts are soft. Then pureé in a blender to a smooth and creamy consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
Photographer Bob Narod is based in Herndon, Virginia.