For immigrant families, food often serves as a throughline for the next generation to understand, take pride in and carry on their ancestral culture.
Whether punching dough with my yiayia at four years old for koulourakia (Greek Easter cookies), smelling homemade bread before entering my house after school, or spending hours watching my mom and yiayia fight whether to add rice or not to avgolemono, I have been trained to take Greek food very seriously, even down to which brand of feta is best (it’s Dodoni).
Needless to say, I am always hesitant when approaching Greek restaurants. I often find myself comparing it to my family’s cooking and most places in D.C. that offer Greek food blend multiple Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines together or focus exclusively on famous street food dishes like gyros and souvlaki. However, the opening of Nicholas Stefanelli’s Philotimo as a Greek fine dining restaurant changes the game.
Chef Stefanelli, who owns the Michelin-starred Masseria and cafe-restaurant Officina, is departing from Italian cuisine which brought him his initial success. Stefanelli grew up around both his Italian and Greek grandparents, so it was only a matter of time before he ventured to the other side of his ancestry. Stefanelli leans on his childhood memories with both sets of grandparents for inspiration and culinary ethos.
“Most of my family had gardens in their backyards and cooked with the [produce],” Stefanelli recalls. “Food was always a focal point of life. It definitely had an effect on what I appreciated as I matured and grew.”
Part of the effect included Stefanelli’s drive to properly source ingredients. When researching for Philotimo, he took multiple trips to different parts of Greece — from the mountains on the mainland to the islands — for inspiration and to find farmers, cheesemongers and winemakers he could source ingredients from.
“Product sourcing is an aspect we’re trying to work hard and diligently on,” Stefanelli notes.
Although Stefanelli admitted working with small international farms caused some supply delays due to the ongoing pandemic, eating creamy, fresh Mizithra cheese from a Cretan farm while in D.C. makes up for the hassle.
Philotimo’s menu incorporates staple rustic Greek dishes through a fine dining lens. Take the loukamades, which is normally fried dough dipped in a honey syrup and served as dessert. Here, the loukamades are savory and stuffed with taramousalta and caviar.
As Stefanelli explains, “We wanted to kind of have some playfulness, but still have some nostalgic pieces to it.”
Other standout dishes stay more true to the classic preparation, including lagos stifado, which is a rich cinnamon tomato rabbit stew, an artichoke and carrot dish in a dill and avgolemono broth and kakavia which is a fisherman’s stew.
The menu is sectioned into pasta, vegetable, seafood and meat dishes, and allows patrons to pick and choose across the sections as they please. Every 15 days, the menu is expected to change, as Stefanelli wants the menu to reflect seasonal ingredients.
In addition to food, Philitimo has a wine cellar that holds up to 4,000 bottles of wine-focused on Greek varieties. One Greek wine that Stefanelli is particularly fond of is Xinomavro.
“Xinomavro for me is going to be the next big red wine in the world as people get exposed to it. I mean, it’s almost like Barolo in Burgundy had a baby. It’s got a lot of tannin structure and beautiful leathery, tomato, olive brine nose to it.”
While this menu highlights popular Greek ingredients and dishes that may be unfamiliar to the larger local audience, Stefanelli is on a mission to broaden people’s understanding of what Greek food has to offer.
“Most of the time people travel to Greece in the summertime,” Stefanelli says. “They’re going to the islands, but unless you’re really delving deep into the countryside and the wine areas, you’re not seeing some of these things [we offer on the menu]. It’s really about bringing a lot of these ingredients to light.”
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