All posts by Zak M. Salih

Menomale Celebrates Five Years of Neapolitan Pizza

Maria Rusciano, co-owner of Menomale

There’s pizza. Then there’s Neapolitan pizza: an almost religious style of pizza making that involves special ingredients (such as Fior di latte mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes) and specific techniques. Distinct for its crispy outer ring of crust, it’s a delicious fork-and-knife pizza experience that’s rare in the D.C. Metro area. But Brookland has Menomale: a Neapolitan pizzeria to call its own.

While it seems like only yesterday Menomale first opened its doors, the restaurant now celebrates five years of business. On a recent afternoon, while the restaurant was still closed and the first wood logs were being lit in the restaurant’s beautiful new tiled oven, we sat down with co-owner Maria Rusciano as she reflected on Menomale’s anniversary – and its future.

How do you feel now that Menomale’s hit its five-year anniversary?

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and it’s been a great five years. We’ve had a very good time just running the business and being a part of the neighborhood. We’re also very proud that we’ve managed to make Menomale not just a neighborhood restaurant but a destination for the entire D.C. Metro area. Some people drive 45 minutes to get here to taste our pizza! We’re very thankful for the success we’ve had.

Why go into the Neapolitan pizza business in the first place?

My husband, Ettore, is from Naples, and I’m originally from Bulgaria. Every time we’d go to Naples, we’d eat this kind of pizza. This is the first business we started, though we both have backgrounds working in the restaurant industry. We love the simplicity of Neapolitan pizza, but also the intricacies involved in making it. You really have to stay true to the few ingredients you need to use. You have to respect the process. It’s not like in baking, where you can substitute applesauce for oil; if you make any changes, it’s not going to be true Neapolitan pizza. There’s an association [Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana] we belong to that protects this style of pizza.

Was Salumeria 2703 always part of your business plan?

We always had the idea of taking over the block because there were so many empty commercial spaces. We thought: Why not do an Italian deli? Brookland didn’t have one, and there are also not that many Italian delis in the D.C. Metro area. The ones that do exist don’t necessarily provide the same experience you’d get in a deli in Italy, so that’s where we thought we could make a difference. We’ve owned the space for more than two years, and Salumeria 2703 is already more than a year old.

What’s the story behind the new oven you just installed over Thanksgiving?

The old oven was not insulated at all and was releasing too much heat. It became too hot for the pizza makers to work there – especially in the summer. Our new oven, like the old one, was brought over from Naples. It’s covered in tile from a little town on the Amalfi Coast, Vietri sul Mare, that specializes in hand-painted ceramic tile. Not only does the new oven have improved insulation, it also looks more beautiful.

What can we expect from Menomale in the coming years?

We’re working on additions to the menu. We make fresh pasta at Salumeria 2703, so we’ll be adding lasagna to the menu, as well as eggplant parmasean. Another dish we’re adding is a specialty from Sorrento: gnocchi alla sorrentina, which is gnocchi baked with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce. We’re also planning a new Mediterranean look to Menomale, centered around our new oven. We have nine more cases of Amalfi tile, so we’ll use some of that throughout the restaurant.

As a Brooklander, what do you enjoy about the neighborhood?

I really like the sense of community here. Through the business, we’ve gotten to know pretty much everybody in the neighborhood. I love that it’s very walkable; I have a small child, so we go for walks a lot. There have been a lot of positive changes in Brookland as well. When we first moved in, Noyes Playground was just an empty field. Now, it’s a beautiful park. The fact that Brookland just keeps getting better is something I really appreciate. It’s great for the community – and it’s great for business.

Primrose, Brookland’s New French Restaurant: Chic And Satisfying

About a year ago, the neighborhood first began to hear rumors of a French wine bar coming to the space once occupied by the (much-missed) El Salvadoran chicken joint, Sylvestre Café. It felt like a longer than normal wait for rumor to become reality, but Primrose, the latest addition to the 12th Street restaurant scene, is finally open. The brainchild of Sebastian Zutant and his wife, Lauren Winter (the couple behind The Red Hen), Primrose is a marvel: a dining experience that’s classy (but not too classy), elegant (but not too elegant) and definitely, as you can see from the photos below, unabashedly French chic. (You need Flash to see these photos. If you can’t see them, click here.)

The experience starts with the restaurant itself, whose name is announced on cool mosaic tile by the front door. Your eyes are drawn, immediately, to the feathered chandeliers suspended over a row of generous high-top tables, then over to the gleaming bar space. Smaller tables for two and four line the perimeter of the space. The massive floor-to-ceiling glass doors were closed the evening our party went; one can only imagine what the springtime dining and drinking experience will be like when they’re open to the patio space just waiting for bistro tables and chairs.

Primrose offers 75 wines by the bottle and 15 wines by the glass, all vintages from small wine producers in France and the United States. The drink menu also features several innovative cocktails, as well as a classic French 75 that’s light and spritzy and, at always $9, something of Primrose’s go-to tipple. One standout we enjoyed wasn’t wine but a delicious cider from Normandy: not too tart, not too sweet, and served in its own corked 375ml bottle.

The modest food menu, which one imagines (and hopes) will shift with the seasons, covers all the French classics. Our party started the meal with a sample of Primrose’s three charcuterie offerings. Of these, a rillettes of whipped rabbit and a duck-liver mousse capped with sour cherries could just as well have been eaten with a spoon as with the complementary baguette slices (alas, more chewy than crispy).

A must-try: the delectable coq au vin, braised in a red wine sauce, and bouef bourguignon, enriched with pebbles of bacon and mushroom. Both dishes are stomach-filling treasures, and the only disappointment was that they came out of the kitchen somewhat lukewarm (one of Primrose’s few, but forgivable, kinks). Both plates can be sized to serve two people, and for an extra price can come accompanied with whipped potatoes, a simple green salad, and frites that are thicker than you’d expect and deliciously crispy.

Of course, you can’t call yourself a French-style bistro without an offering of steak frites. Primrose’s rendition of the dish was exceptional: a generous piece of sirloin (we recommend medium rare to medium) accompanied with a classic béarnaise sauce and a welcome helping of the aforementioned frites

One suspects news of Primrose will quickly get around to other quadrants of the city, but don’t let the anticipated visitors detract you from stopping by for an early evening glass of wine and a helping of whipped rabbit mousse or a bundle of frites. You’ll leave Primrose the same way our party did: satiated and satisfied.

Primrose is located at 3000 12th Street NE. Current hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday; 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Website: primrosedc.com

A Chat with Meredith Sheperd of Love & Carrots

Meredith Sheperd (photo credit: Hannah Colclazier)

Chances are, you’ve seen them scattered around Brookland and across the city: plots of garden space stamped with the words Love & Carrots. You’ve see the vines of peppers and tomatoes, the bushes of herbs and bursts of flowers, the raised beds and metal containers in front yards and on the roof decks of popular restaurants.

Small or large, they’re all the brainchild of Brooklander Meredith Sheperd and the organization she started in 2011. Sheperd and her team have made it their mission to “expose as many people as possible to sustainable practices and smart growing, so they can use that knowledge themselves and continue to share it with others.”

We sat down for a brief chat with Sheperd about her business and her love of the neighborhood she calls home.

Where did your passion for gardening and local food come from?

I grew up in rural Vermont on a beautiful historic farm. My parents gardened endlessly –flowers, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, rhubarb, and more. They instilled in me a deep love and appreciation of nature that I thank them for. After college at Notre Dame, where I earned a degree in environmental science, I became interested in the local food movement. I worked as a small-scale organic farmer in Virginia, Maryland, and around the world before eventually managing an organic farm that grew directly for D.C. restaurants.

Where did the idea for Love & Carrots come from?

Love & Carrots was born out of my own lack of garden space! I was living on New Jersey Avenue at the time and was frustrated with my shady, postage-stamp yard. I’d just returned from teaching agriculture at an orphanage in Guatemala and was applying to urban agriculture jobs in D.C. In Guatemala, the growing conditions were difficult, but I gained an appreciation for food production on any scale. Biking around D.C. for interviews, I marveled at all the sunny production potential in the city. Even the house next door had a sunny corner lot and the people were never home. The experience made me realize D.C.’s potential for transformation.

What makes Brookland ripe for urban gardening?

We’ve installed about a dozen garden spaces in Brookland and actively maintain five of them. Big, sunny yards are ideal for gardening, and our neighborhood has much larger yards than others in the city! Our homes are also more spread out, which means there’s typically more sunlight – and so more options for designing great gardens in front yards, back yards, or even side yards.

What’s next for Love & Carrots?

We just completed a 5,200-square-foot urban farm for The Pearl, an apartment building in Silver Spring, where residents can sign up to get a weekly basket of produce at low cost. In addition to our friends at Brookland’s Finest, we’re also maintaining production and/or display gardens for other popular D.C. restaurants, including Rose’s Luxury, Pineapple & Pearl, The Columbia Room, Timber Pizza, and Belle Haven DRP. We’ll also soon be company-owned. My goal is to create jobs in urban agriculture that can become long-term careers. Teaching people how to grow food is so important that we need to have people in this field not just for several years but for decades. That’s how we’ll create real experts.

Are there still opportunities for Brooklanders to garden in the fall and winter?

We install garden infrastructure until the ground is frozen and covered in snow – sometimes, that means year-round! In my opinion, it’s better to get your garden installed in the fall and winter, while things are quiet. That way your soil has time to settle, and you can be ready to plant right away in early March. (Peas and spinach can go in as early as February, even if there’s still snow on the ground!)

What do you like about life here in Brookland?

My partner and I now joke with our friends that once you move to Brookland, all you want to talk about is how awesome Brookland is. Before we moved here, we used to take long bike rides through the neighborhood to admire all the adorable houses. After searching for about a year, our dream home popped up in late 2014: a little bungalow that’s close to Brookland’s Finest. I love that I have windows on all sides of our house. I love that we love all our neighbors. I love strolling over to “the Finest” or to Right Proper or to Dew Drop Inn. I love that you hear crickets at night instead of sirens. It’s relaxed here.

A Chat with Dance Place’s New Executive Artistic Director

Christopher K. Morgan

Since 1986, Dance Place has been more than our local dance training and performance venue. It has provided the Brookland community with free artsy activities as well as after-school programs and summer camps.

This August, Dance Place founder Carla Perlo will step down after 37 years leading the organization. In early September, Dance Place will welcome its new executive artistic director, Christopher K. Morgan.

A dancer, choreographer, and arts educator, Christopher will be responsible for the Brookland area-based institution’s overall vision. He’ll also curate over 40 weeks’ worth of performances and programming.

As Christopher prepares for this next stage of his creative and professional career, we caught up with him for a chat about his background and future plans for this cultural institution.

How did dance become your artistic passion (as opposed to, say, painting)?

As a child I danced the hula and dances of Polynesia with my family. Both of my parents were born and raised in Hawai’i but had moved to Southern California during their service in the U.S. Marines. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they gave my brothers and sisters and I the opportunity to connect to our cultural heritage through the dance and music of our ancestors.

I came to Western-influenced forms of dance (ballet, jazz, modern dance) at the age of 17. While participating in high-school theater, a choreographer suggested I take a ballet class. Recognizing a talent in me I didn’t know I had, the ballet teacher invited me to take classes from her for free. Before I knew it, I was consumed by this passion I felt for these ways of moving my body and expressing myself.

I studied in a studio throughout my senior year of high school. I had been studying dance and writing at the University of California at Irvine for two years when I was offered my first full-time job as a dancer for Malashock Dance & Company, a modern company in San Diego. I leapt at the opportunity, as dance had become my all-consuming passion – and has been ever since.

How did you first get involved with Dance Place?

I first learned of Dance Place in 1998 as a young dancer living in San Diego preparing to move to D.C. to dance for what is now The Dance Exchange. A few months later, in January of 1999, I found myself onstage at Dance Place in an evening of dancer-choreographed works.

Of course, I’ve attended many performances at Dance Place over the years, but since I began my dance company, Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, in 2011, Dance Place has played an important role in presenting our work multiple times. Most significantly, Dance Place was one of the two lead commissioners and the site for the world premiere of my 2016 work, Pōhaku, which has now toured to nine venues around the United States.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve felt a growing call to arts leadership emerging in my life, which drew me to the executive artistic director role at Dance Place. In order to achieve equity for under-represented artists, diverse representation must be at the decision-making tables. As a person who identifies with multiple marginalized groups, I take very seriously my role to serve artists, students, and audiences of all types.

What are your hopes for the future of Dance Place?

I’m approaching this new role with a philosophy of inclusivity and service, which is essentially continuing Dance Place’s existing mission. I’m excited how this evolution in my career will allow me to support and serve artists, students, and audiences.

One thing I hope for is to help Dance Place and the greater D.C. dance community increase their visibility on the national scene as an important center for dance. After all, we’re in our nation’s capital, and D.C. has the second-highest concentration of choreographers in the country. The work being presented and made here is noteworthy, and it should be recognized more.

What should the relationship be between an arts organization and its surrounding community?

Nothing exists in isolation. I like to use the image of concentric circles. The concentric circles of community Dance Place inhabits begin with the Brookland and Edgewood neighborhoods and expand from there out to D.C., and from there to the region, and from there to the nation.

Dance Place’s relationship with Brookland and Edgewood has to be strong in order for the organization’s role in the greater D.C. community to be strong. In turn, that creates an open environment that’s ready to receive what the artists who come from outside this particular community bring to our neighborhood. The circles can be porous when they’re strong, allowing ideas and information to flow inward and outward.

What do you like most about the Brookland and Edgewood neighborhoods?

As someone who’s worked at and patronized Dance Place, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Brookland and Edgewood. It’s amazing to see how the neighborhood has evolved since I first set foot in it back in 1998. I hope it can continue to keep its long-time residents while it grows and embraces new neighbors. I’m a big fan of the nearby Busboys and Poets location, and I love grabbing a beer over at Brookland Pint and seeing the Arts Walk alive with people.

As I step into this new role, I’m looking forward to getting to know the residents and local business owners around here. In fact, if you’re reading this and want to meet, let’s do so in the neighborhood. Or better yet: Stop by a performance at Dance Place when our new season starts in the fall and say hi!

Dance Place is located at 3225 Eighth Street NE.

All That Jazz at Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society

Outdoor murals set the scene for the cool vibes inside.

Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society, which has its second anniversary this month, certainly isn’t shy about the music it celebrates.

Right from the street, striking murals of jazz musicians lead you toward an unassuming front door. Step through that portal on a typical Wednesday or Sunday evening, and you’ll find yourself in one of Brookland’s coolest little haunts.

Inside, rustic brick and plaster walls are decorated with photographs of jazz musicians, framed prints of jazz-themed artwork, and African masks and artifacts. A collection of tables and chairs line up in front of the main stage, where from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., local and visiting musicians play everything from Cuban jazz to blues to neo-soul.

JACS celebrates jazz musicians of all generations.

Visit midway through a set, as I did several times recently, and you’ll be pleasantly shocked by the blast of trumpet, the cool tinkling of piano keys, the heartbeat thrum of a guitar, the rumble of drums. It’s a unique sensation all the more precious for being right in our own backyard.

While the ambiance is leisurely, it should be noted this isn’t the kind of jazz you zone out too. There’s nothing smooth or quiet about the music here at Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society. This is jazz that holds your heart in its palms, that excites you, that moves you. It’s impulsive, scattered, free-form.

Artistic director DeAndrey Howard has another, simpler way of putting it. His first words at the start of a recent show say it all: “Jazz, jazz, jazz.”

Jazz, and its historical roots, are everywhere you look.

The brainchild of Howard and Dr. Alice Jameson, Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society, a 501(c) nonprofit organization, is about more than just great jazz performances. It’s also about jazz education, about sharing the music with different generations of listeners and performers. During two shows I attended, the room was filled with people of all ages and backgrounds, some alone, some in groups, everyone looking straight up at the stage in the dim lights, marveling at these cats working their musical magic.

During breaks in the sets, people chat with one another or with musicians. There’s also time for guests to grab a meal from a local caterer serving dinners on-site. Non-alcoholic beverages and snacks are available throughout the evening.

In addition to serving as a cultural center for jazz, JACS also hosts other events, including lectures, spoken word performances, and writer’s groups. The building itself is available to rent for parties and special events.

A spoken-word performance piece celebrating the spirit of jazz

Coltrane. Ellington. Davis. Titans of jazz music, all of them. And all of them resurrected – along with other voices just waiting to be discovered – twice a week at Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society.

So the next time you pass by those vibrant jazz murals on 12th Street between Franklin and Girard and you hear that cymbal crash or trumpet call, do yourself a favor: Go inside and listen closer.

Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society is located at 2813 12th Street NE. Open on Wednesdays and Fridays. For a list of upcoming performances, visit jazzandculturalsociety.com. Cover charge is $5.00 (some events are free).

Touring Brookland’s Little Free Libraries

Location: 1309 Newton Street

There’s just something about used bookstores.

The crowded shelves, the musk of old paper, the hushed sense of history. It’s something with which big-chain bookstores (such as Catholic University’s Barnes & Noble) and libraries (such as nearby Woodridge Library), just can’t compete.

A used bookstore is like an archaeological dig for bookworms. It’s also, I’d argue, an essential part of any neighborhood.

Location: 1218 Kearney Street

Which is why, after three years as a proud Brooklander, I still find myself wondering why a good used bookstore hasn’t planted roots somewhere along our streets. Especially when I know there are plenty of readers in this neighborhood. I’ve seen their bookshelves during the House and Garden Tours. I catch them occasionally sitting on neighborhood benches or at bar tables.

When I’ve got that craving for used bookstores, I tend to take myself across town to Second Story Books (in Dupont Circle), Carpe Librum (off Farragut Square), or Walls of Books (east of Columbia Heights).

And when I want to stay local, I stroll past our neighborhood’s Little Free Libraries.

Location: 8th Street (adjacent to Annie’s Ace Hardware)

Scattered throughout our streets in cabinets, trains, and even robots, these little huts are like birdhouses for books in need of new readers. They also provide welcome homes for books you’re looking to put up for adoption.

According to the website, there are four registered Little Free Libraries in Brookland. A little amateur detective work uncovered a few more flying under the radar.

Location: 3907 13th Street

On a recent fair-weather Saturday, I took a few books of my own to give away. What I found  peering inside these little rooms is a curious window into the reading tastes – or distastes – of some of us here in Brookland.

Location: ArtsWalk

The best part of these used book huts? They’re all built (or repurposed) and maintained by Brooklanders themselves. Which makes them a touching tribute to the creativity, ingenuity, and community spirit of our neighborhood.

Robot Little Library in front of Brookland’s Finest, 3126 12th Street NE

So yes, Brookland could stand to use a fixed used bookstore where readers like me can indulge in our own private searches, our own unexpected discoveries.

In the meantime, these free little libraries our neighbors have built and keep stocked with books offer a different kind of search.

Know another Little Free Library location in Brookland we missed?  Let us know in the comments!

Solitude (And Serenity) At The Franciscan Monastery’s Hermitages

We’re excited to bring on Brookland-based freelance writer Zak M. Salih for an occasional series of longer-form posts. Zak’s written for blogs and publications including UrbanTurf, Washington City Paper, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. You can learn more about him at zmscopy.com — or just look for him sipping Manhattans at Steel Plate. Welcome aboard, Zak!

Hermitage at Franciscan Monastery (interior)

Peace. Quiet. Solitude.

For some people, that sounds like a horrible idea. For others, it sounds like just the respite needed from a frazzled, hyperactive life.

One solution to that, it turns out, isn’t hours away in the mountains. It’s right in our own backyard.

The hermitages at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America (1400 Quincy Street NE) offer anyone – not just the deeply religious – an opportunity to retreat from the world. To sit and contemplate things bigger than themselves.

Inside each hermitage (there are currently two) is 350 square feet of handicapped-accessible living space, including a bed, a desk, a kitchenette, a washer/dryer, and a small deck. The most important asset, however: the profound sense of removal from the world. (There’s a reason the hermitages are built to fit only one person.)

It’s a retreat in every sense of the word: physical, mental, and — if you’re so inclined (though it’s not a prerequisite) — spiritual.

As Father Jeremy Harrington, former Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery, said during the opening dedication ceremony of the first hermitage in September 2012:

Saint Francis regularly went to remote places, caves, and mountaintops to pray. So this is the hermitage for people to come and have the opportunity right in the middle of Washington for prayer, for solitude, for communion with God.

Designed in collaboration with architecture students from The Catholic University of America, the hermitages are a far cry from the dank caves and grottoes Saint Francis preferred. They’re more like 21st-century cabins dropped onto the Monastery’s 42 acres.

Hermitage at Franciscan Monastery (exterior)

And they’re getting more popular. A second hermitage opened last year on December 1 to accommodate increased interest in stays (the first hermitage hosted 76 visitors in 2016).

According to Susan Gibbs, a spokesperson for the Franciscan Monastery:

The original vision is to have a maximum of four hermitages, depending on space, finances, and demand. The second hermitage is located near the first, but the layout is different, so each experience will be unique.

If you’re interested in booking, it’s best to send an email to hermitage@myfranciscan.com. You can also call 202-526-6800 with general inquiries.

The cost is $80 per night and includes everything except food, for which the hermits themselves are responsible. As far as length of stay, people usually stay between one and seven nights, though longer retreats can be arranged.

This writer (and closet hermit) certainly plans on making a reservation in the coming months, once spring arrives for good.

Learn more about the hermitages here.