Mon 23 Mar 2009
When they open their doors for dinner service tonight, Potenza will culminate the process of revitalizing a corner of downtown DC whose most memorable recent tenant was a surprisingly resilient bikini shop. This newest offering from the Stir Food Group (the folks who’ve given us Zola and the new Zola Wine & Kitchen), is actually a variety of concepts under one roof: a trattoria-style dining room, a bakery and a wine shop will all co-exist under the Potenza name by the time everything is up and running.
Located at the corner of 15th and H Streets, NW, just a few blocks from the White House, Potenza is in a prime location for an Obama date night. And their menu, as developed by Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello and his staff, features a broad range of flavors that can generally be described as “rustic Italian.” But chatting with partner Dan Mesches, it’s clear that Potenza doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. How you see them will likely depend on which of their concepts suits you best.
On Saturday afternoon, with mock service going on all around us, I met with Darcey Thomson for a walk through the (vast) space. Ms. Thomson is the marketing manager for CORE Architecture & Design, the firm responsible for turning a warren of chopped up little storefronts into a cohesive, flowing space for dining, drinking, and otherwise enjoying yourself. If that name sounds familiar, you may remember them from their work with Founding Farmers and their efforts to design the space to meet LEED certification standards for ‘green’ building.
More of our first look at Potenza, including some additional photos and details on their official opening dates (beyond tonight’s dinner) after the jump.
We entered Potenza from H Street, coming in off the street into a glass-enclosed foyer that is actually part of a historic hallway from the building’s original construction. Turning to the host stand, we had two views from this initial vantage point. To our left: the main dining room with its ornate scroll-worked wooden lattices over booths made from converted church pews. To our right: the salotto, a small lounge area with dark wooden walls and cream-colored cushions where parties will gather and wait to be seated.
From there, it was an easy choice to make our way along the front of the restaurant to the large free-standing bar. This zinc-topped behemoth has pride of place, occupying the corner where 15th and H intersect. The setting feels like a blend of the Old World and the New, with aged tilework along the floor and flatscreen televisions above the bar. A few small high-topped tables stand in the windows for those who don’t want to pull up a leather-cushioned seat at the bar itself. The back wall is entirely taken up with temperature-controlled wine racks, and racks of spirits above the bar indicate that the classics (Galliano, vermouth, Campari) are well-represented.
Bottles of Galliano and grappa might warm some traditionalists’ hearts, but the most exciting sight for me were the three large jugs of fruit soaking in highly potent alcoholic baths. Potenza is actually making its own ‘cellos on site and working these infused liquors into a cocktail list that boasts almost a dozen creative options. Currently being steeped are a limoncello (lemons), a meloncello (cucumber and honeydew), and pompelmocello (grapefruit).
From the bar, we made our way into the main dining room for a moment before passing through into that lovingly restored hallway that ends in the front foyer. The rest of the hallway has been set aside, turned into a semi-private dining area with views of the shellfish bar and the antipasto station. Raw bar options will include oysters from both coasts and little neck clams, while cooked choices will run to smoked mussels and lobster tails. Looking past the shellfish into the antipasti, it’s easy to recognize traditional favorites like roasted garlic, olives cured in olive oil, sliced artichokes and fennel. Charcuterie will be cured in-house and served alongside imported favorites like prosciutto di Parma and speck.
The main dining room is actually comprised of several spaces, including the Sala that is visible from the host stand and a larger space that spreads out along the rear of the restaurant and offers views into the open kitchen that runs along the back wall. A 6000-pound pizza oven occupies one corner of the space, turning out pies and flatbreads with toppings like gorgonzola dolce, salami picante, and assorted funghi. Eventually, there are plans to expand to include an outdoor seating area along the 15th Street side of the building. For now, however, the restaurant can comfortably seat more than 150 patrons at one time.
This is the Potenza that will greet diners when they arrive for dinner service starting tonight, but it’s certainly not everything that the Stir Food Group has in store for us. Next Monday, March 30th, they will be opening the complementary concepts that will also be offered at Potenza: a wine shop on 15th Street (it’s no great leap to assume a healthy Italian focus), and a bakery/gelateria that will turn out everything from rustic pane bello to the crisp, thin grissini that are the genuine Italian article when it comes to breadsticks.
The bakery is being overseen by Mark Furstenberg, the creator of Breadline and one of Washington’s most celebrated traditional bakers. Furstenberg’s breads will be available for retail sale in a space reminiscent of a little Italian cafe. Also for sale in this space will be Italian-style gelato, coffee and espresso.
Within the next three weeks or so, Potenza will expand to offer lunch service as well, a smart move considering the neighborhood’s heavy concentration of businesses and government offices, all of whom should be eagerly awaiting this new dining option.
Reservations for tonight’s opening may still be available (Potenza was not yet showing up on OpenTable as of last night), so you may want to give them a quick call if you’ve got a taste for hearty rustic Italian fare tonight. Who knows? You may just catch the President dropping by to wish his new neighbors well!