Rustic Slice of Italy, Just Like Grandma Used to Make
Potenza, located in the historic Woodward Building a few blocks from the White House, is the newest of the Stir Food Group’s ventures. The brainchild of local restaurateur Dan Mesches, it the latest in a string of bistro-type restaurants to open downtown, and it is a welcome addition. For the 175-seat restaurant, Mesches turned to his roots, naming the venture after his southern Italian-born grandmother Columbina Potenza, and borrowing her love of simple and natural cooking to create a concept that reflects the more rustic side of Italian cooking.
To translate his vision for the design, Mesches brought on noted architectural design firm CORE for a major renovation of the space. Capitalizing on existing architectural features, CORE created a series of distinct spaces for very different dining experiences. A small sitting area — formal with plush furniture, wood floor and dark ambience — gives way to a large tiled bar area dominated by an enormous zinc bar that seats 40. The great hall has been transformed into an outdoor-styled café available for spillover from the restaurant, seating for the bakery, or for private events. Meanwhile, the oblong dining room is framed on one side by an open kitchen that offers a few ringside seats along the dividing wall. Tables and booths offer perhaps less exciting but slightly calmer seating.
On a busy Friday or Saturday night, the pace is hectic (though a marvel of efficiency) and the tables closest to the kitchen in the main dining area can feel a bit overwhelming, although the design includes a number of areas offering greater privacy and quiet. CORE has incorporated eclectic design elements selected to evoke different facets of Italian culture. Salvaged church pews, custom millwork, Galileo-inspired lighting, travertine tiles, hand-painted murals and custom-made tableware combine for a richly textured backdrop to the food, which is equally diverse.
There is so much in fact that makes Potenza unique and appealing. It cures its own meats, makes its own cheeses and pastas in house, and bakes all its own breads. It even has its own water system that provides unlimited still and sparkling water for the table at a very reasonable price. And best of all, at its helm, executive chef-partner Bryan Moscatello orchestrates everything from the open kitchen designed to give diners a view of the signature pizza oven. That massive oven — weighing 6,000 pounds — turns out such delicacies as the gorgonzola dolce, featuring preserved tomato sauce, gorgonzola, mache and aged balsamic drizzle, as well as the funghi pizza, with Portobello mushrooms, oyster, tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmesan. In the style of traditional Italian pizza, the crust is thinnish, the toppings spare, and the flavors pure and simple.
An award-winning chef with unlikely roots as a snowboarder in Colorado, Moscatello brings substantial prior experience to the partnership with Mesches, including the coveted title of “Best New Chef in America” conferred by Food & Wine Magazine in 2003. The team is rounded out with chef de cuisine Anthony Acinapura, who joins Potenza after stints running his own steak house in Florida and Italian restaurant in New York City.
In developing the menu for Potenza, Moscatello traveled throughout Italy, searching for dishes and ingredients that reflect his straightforward approach to cooking. Diners familiar with Moscatello’s previous work at Zola and Indigo Landing will recognize his touch especially in fish dishes such as monkfish — poached in lemon and olive oil and accented with pancetta, artichokes and olives — as well as the shrimp and calamari, sautéed with a bouquet of zucchini, escarole and garbanzo beans. Potenza’s meat dishes are equally appealing and demonstrate Moscatello’s emphasis on simply prepared, fresh, local ingredients. Roasted chicken, veal loin, veal scaloppini and beefsteak are each paired with just a few other ingredients — with deliciously filling results.
Although the dishes may be skillfully sparse, the menu is packed full of delightful surprises. It offers diners the broadest possible choices from full multi-course meals, to pizza, to samplings of a wide variety of antipasti. A nice selection of salami includes Bresaolo made from local beef, Spicy Sopressata and Capicollo, all house cured. There’s also Speck from Italy’s Alto Adige, Prosciutto Di Parma from Parma Province and Salami Finocchiona from Tuscany. As a perfect accompaniment, the menu includes cheese samples — in hard, medium, soft cow and sheep varieties, including excellent sheep pecorino with truffle and cow-sheep taleggio. Served with toasted ciabatta, apricot-and-mustard compote, honey with tiny flecks of black truffle, and grapes soaked in Moscato D’Asti wine, they make a nice snack, appetizer or savory end to the meal. The vegetable antipasti are also unusually interesting, with such choices as asparagus grilled with parmesan cheese, fennel roasted with tarragon, and artichokes marinated in garlic and chili. A meal of the meats, cheese, vegetable and superb house bread is perfectly satisfying and evokes the rustic character of the restaurant.
For the entrées, chefs Moscatello and Acinapura have put together a selection of excellent pasta dishes. Some are hearty and substantial, such as the rigatoni and Sunday gravy — a delicious combination of house-made meatballs, spicy fennel sausage, spare ribs, brasciole and ricotta, served with a thick red sauce. Equally masterful is the pappardelle al cinghiale made of peppercorn pappardelle served with a wild boar ragout and Portobello mushrooms. More delicate choices include the mezzelune di ricotta — half moon-shape pillow pasta stuffed with ricotta, spinach, preserved tomato and fontina sauce — and the spinach gnocchi served with gorgonzola sauce and toasted walnuts. A well-executed mushroom risotto, with porcini and trumpet royal varieties, is rich but similarly light in flavor.
Desserts are created in the bakery, where you can watch as each plate is built like a work of art. Traditional favorites abound: The tiramisu combines intense espresso-soaked lady fingers mellowed with whipped mascarpone and flavored with a hint of marsala and tracings of chocolate-cinnamon sauce. Buttermilk panna cotta is a less sweet version, and more robust. It is a perfect counter balance to the pistachio plum torta, which itself is complemented with a tiny scoop of a honey-thyme gelato. Frozen desserts are particularly good, from the chocolate-hazelnut semi freddo served with an espresso sauce, to the many exotic flavors of homemade gelato and sorbet. The bombolini — small, round, oven-baked Italian doughnuts served with morello cherry confettura — are an interesting and uncommon choice, perfect for those who like to finish on a less sweet note.
A big plate of antipasti cries out for a big glass of red wine and Elli Benchimol, Stir Food Group’s director of wine and spirits, has put together a nice selection of more than 250 Italian wines, a number of which are available by the half glass, glass and half bottle. For something stronger, Potenza offers interesting signature cocktails, including the Bina Bellini, a fragrant blend of white peaches, Italian vodka and Prosecco that is dedicated to the restaurant’s namesake.
The success of Mesches’s restaurants that have included the likes of Zola and Red Sage suggests that Mesches has an excellent eye for what his customers want, and how to give it to them. Potenza is no exception. It’s a delightful study of contrasts, with its mix of elegant yet casual atmosphere, and rustic yet refined food. And with its surprisingly affordable price point, along with the variety of dining experiences it offers, it seems likely to follow in the footsteps of Mesches’s other hotspots. Already it’s crowded in the evenings, even mid-week, as the restaurant buzzes with the sounds of people having a good time, even the staff. Commenting on the energy level, one staff member noted, “What do you expect, it’s Italian!” And so it is, one little slice of Italy, on the corner of 15th and H.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.