The Hot Plate: A Restaurant’s Beginning

In Opening Potenza, Mesches Has His Hands Full

Posted March 31, 2009 at 4:45pm

It’s opening week at the new Italian restaurant Potenza, and owner Dan Mesches is sitting in the center of the dining room with a small group of friends. He smiles as he tastes dishes from his new restaurant.

Every so often he rises from his seat to shake hands with a well-wisher and proudly scan the room. After years of hard work and careful planning, he’s finally opening the restaurant inspired by his beloved grandmother.

“I’ve always wanted to do an Italian restaurant,— Mesches says. “This idea started many years ago being in the fields with my grandmother picking all these strange things.—

His background is half Italian and half Russian, which means he was raised in a family that loved food. His grandmother has had so much influence over him in the kitchen that he used her surname for the restaurant’s name. Not only is Potenza a family name, but it is also a region in Italy and it means “power— in Italian.

Coming up with a name was only a small part of the work that went into making Potenza a reality. Mesches, who is CEO of Stir Food Group, which is responsible for Zola and the now-closed Red Sage, says that from the beginning he wanted to create a rustic Italian restaurant with delicious, reasonably priced food and a neighborhood feel. Of course, Mesches couldn’t do all of this on his own.

“It really is a team effort that comes out of a personal vision,— he says, citing Stir Food Group executive chef and partner Bryan Moscatello; Ralph Rosenberg, who acts as vice president of operations and is a partner; CORE Architecture and Design; and his financial partner, the Malrite Group, as key players. “We’ve got a great team.—

The team knew from the start that the location and building would be key. The group first began looking for locations near Zola in Penn Quarter but were unable to find the right space. Eventually, Mesches says they stumbled upon the historic Woodward Building on the corner of 15th and H streets Northwest, just two blocks from the White House.

[IMGCAP(1)]“We saw this building from 1911 and thought, This is a phenomenal site!’ It is historic, much like the building that Zola and the International Spy Museum are in, much like Red Sage was, and it’s a done deal,— Mesches says. He and his partners quickly snapped up the space and the additional 2,500 square feet available in the building.

The group then faced the challenge of making a 10,000-square-foot space feel intimate and comfortable. They accomplished that by breaking the restaurant down into various sections, each with its own atmosphere. For instance, there is the bakery where patrons can watch bread being made or perhaps enjoy a muffin before running off to a morning meeting. The bread baked here by Mark Furstenberg — founder of Breadline — will supply Potenza, Zola and Zola Wine and Kitchen and will also be sold to walk-in customers.

Across from the bakery, a long zinc-top bar is separated from the dining room by a small sitting area and a large wall lined with wine bottles. The bar is outfitted with plasma-screen TVs and portrait windows that look out onto 15th and H streets. Once it warms up, it will feature 60 outdoor seats where people can sip on a $7 glass of wine and watch passers-by.

There is also a large glass-enclosed hallway that runs down the center of the restaurant. This space is peppered with tables and gives patrons a bird’s-eye view of the sights, sounds and smells of Potenza’s active kitchen, as well as the restaurant’s large dining room complete with cozy booths and wooden tables.

The walls are covered in recipes and faux-worn wallpaper, giving Potenza a lived-in, homey feel. This is exactly the kind of vibe Mesches and his partners were aiming for.

“Building a restaurant is like building your own home because it’s so personal,— Mesches says on a recent tour of the space. “We did not want a high-end feel. I hope people feel a real genuine sense of warmth.—

This warmth might also come from a menu that is a pleasant mix of creative Italian fare and comfort food. Overseen by Moscatello and implemented by chef de cuisine Anthony Acinapura on a nightly basis, Potenza’s food is recession-friendly and tasty. Featuring a handful of 18-inch pizzas for less than $15, plates of homemade pasta — including spaghetti and meatballs — priced in the teens and bread so good you’ll ask for a second basket, the restaurant is built to weather this economic storm. This is no accident. Mesches says the idea was always to create a menu where patrons could get a good value, but that the current climate was taken into consideration when it was time to price items.

“You’ll be able to come in here and for $12 have a pasta at the lower end, $12 have a pizza,— Mesches says. “So it’s not a place where you need to spend a lot of money to have a good time.—

Before creating the menu, partners in the Stir Food Group traveled through Tuscany, Umbria and Rome in an effort to find the right taste for the restaurant.

“What didn’t we eat?— Mesches asks with a laugh. “We just ate our way and, frankly, drank our way through Italy.— He adds that he visited both vineyards and kitchens in Italy and also traveled through the United States to see what other restaurants were up to. In addition to their travels, Mesches and Moscatello looked to their grandmothers’ recipes for inspiration.

“A lot of these harken back to our childhood for all of us because you don’t have to be Italian to eat Italian food as a child,— Mesches says. “So there is certainly that ode to my grandmother.—

Once the design and construction were completed and the menu perfected, the only thing left to do was staff the restaurant. This process began with the search for a chef de cuisine. Moscatello oversees all of Stir Food Group’s restaurants and spends time in each of the kitchens, but the group needed someone to hold down the fort at Potenza. They found that person in Acinapura.

“We are looking for someone who knows how to cook and has a passion for food and knows how to handle people,— Mesches says. Upon meeting Acinapura, the chef prepared “some of the best spinach gnocchi of our lives,— Mesches says. And he was a “great person— to boot.

From there, Mesches and his team moved on to servers, line cooks and others. They conducted more than 2,000 interviews to fill the 200 open positions. Once the staff was chosen, they were sent to a Potenza boot camp of sorts where they spent time in the classroom learning about the food, ate every dish and drank all the wine. There was even an element of role-playing where they took turns playing waiter and customer.

“We have a very intense training process,— Mesches admits. “The people that are hired here are the top 10 percent that were out there, and we’re very proud of that.—

Now the paper has been taken off of the windows and the doors are open at Potenza. Despite the country’s economic woes, the bar was crowded during the opening week, and the dining room was peppered with hungry Washingtonians. While many business owners are cowering in fear of closure as the markets plunge, Mesches says he’s not worried.

“I think Washington is somewhat of an insulated environment. Certainly, we’ve all felt it, but the government is a good thing to have here in town; the government is spending money,— he says. “We believe in Washington.—