Chef Amy Brandwein Brings Classic Italian Fare to DC
As costs and profit margins continue to tighten in the restaurant industry, chefs and restaurateurs have had to become more innovative, not just in their menu items and cooking or presentation techniques, but also in the way they run their businesses.
From opening secondary, fast-casual outlets to expanding catering, restaurant owners have also explored opening onsite markets or similar retail outlets to boost sales and encourage more restaurant traffic, or vice versa.
Such is the case with Chef Amy Brandwein’s Centrolina in Washington, D.C. The Italian-inspired restaurant and market, which opened in June 2015, caters to diners looking for seasonal, authentic dishes as well as to home cooks looking to boost their meals and their entertaining prowess. The idea had ruminated in Chef Brandwein’s mind for nearly a decade, while she worked at various Italian restaurants and bistros in the D.C. area.
“As a chef at those restaurants, we were getting all these amazing products and creating amazing dishes with them that I felt this shouldn’t be kept as a little secret for just chefs but should be available for everybody,” she says.
At Centrolina, the restaurant’s menu focuses on seasonal ingredients rather than singling out a specific region of Italy. By default, she explains, “In the colder months we lean more heavily toward Northern Italian cuisine and in the warmer months we focus on Southern Italy.”
One dish continues to remain popular year-round: wood-roasted octopus with potato confit and paired with pork layered with spices and oregano that’s rolled, braised in tomato sauce and sliced into discs. “The idea is you eat a little bit of each element with every bite,” Chef Brandwein says.
Diners also seem to clamor for her homemade pappardelle pasta with white veal ragu and, more recently, a squid ink pasta dish with a Calabrian chili sauce and cubes of raw tuna on top. “When you toss the tuna in with the pasta it cooks slightly and the chili paste adds an umami element,” she says.
The woman-led team, headed by Brandwein and supported by general manager Angie Duran, pastry chef Amanda Cook-Pilkerton, and beverage manager Kristin Welch, relies on strong collaboration and like-minded thinking to keep the flow of products moving through the market to the restaurant and back.
Brandwein and Duran, who worked together before opening Centrolina, manage and oversee the 100-seat restaurant, including the patio and bar space, and the adjacent market, while Cook-Pilkerton dreams up desserts and bakes a growing selection of fresh breads for the restaurant and market. At the bar, Welch has developed a wine list featuring boutique producers, all from Italy, and a cocktail list with classic and seasonal inspirations, like a Negroni with Punt e Mes (Italian vermouth), Contratto rosso, Contratto bitter, and Sapphire gin. She also trains both the bar and the front-of-house serving staff.
In essence, the market dictates what’s served in the restaurant, with its edited, frequently rotating menu. “I wanted to pack a market full of amazing products, whether that’s produce we get from local farms or special imports from Italy, and then use those for the restaurant as well,” Brandwein says. “Every day I look at the market to see what we have and develop a lot of the dishes based on that. We work very contemporaneously and just focus on using super-fresh food. This environment lends itself to a lot of creativity and makes it easier to manage food costs with better results.”
Another business advantage is that the restaurant and market promote each other. Those shopping in the market might be intrigued to come back for dinner, and restaurant guests frequently shop the store. Chef Brandwein notes one customer who actually left her table at the restaurant to shop for items for the week, returning to finish her meal.
Every day, at least a few dishes are changed or tweaked slightly, which helps reduce waste and keeps things interesting for frequent diners and shoppers. Chef Brandwein sources produce from farmers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, often showcasing Shenandoah beef.
The menu also features daily fish from her fishmonger in accordance with what’s the freshest for the season. “Just like vegetables, fish is seasonal, too. Red snapper might be great one month and terrible another, and black cod can get worms during certain times of the year,” she says.
Brandwein and her team often buy the fish whole and fabricate it onsite, selling some to customers in the store and also using it for daily fish specials in the restaurant.
It’s a productive environment with constantly evolving parts and—with its wide-open kitchen—Chef Brandwein must ensure that her staff maintains a level of professionalism at all times.
Fortunately—and contrary to the kitchens profiled in celebrity food shows—tension-fueled outbursts are rarely an issue. “The goal is to not create a stressful environment, to make sure everyone is on the same page, and to have a great management team,” Brandwein says. “This is the key to creating synergy between the front and back of the house.” And, in the case of this market and restaurant, between one side of the business and the other.