Hops to It: Mannino wasted no time revamping Rustico?s menu.
Hops to It: Mannino wasted no time revamping Rustico?s menu. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Steve Mannino was in a tight spot. The chef found himself without work last fall when the Presidential, a much-slobbered-over golf course/restaurant/corporate boardroom in Dulles, went belly up. The job loss delivered a serious blow to Mannino and his family. They had moved here expressly for the chef gig at the ultra-swank country club, which had hoped to cater to corporate fat cats looking to conduct business on the links.

But the layoff was compounded by something even worse: a recession. Mannino, after all, is not a journeyman hack who could be content slinging some second-rate slop for a paycheck. He’s a formally trained toque who was once so valued in the Olives Group that he was asked in 1999 to open the D.C. branch of celebrity chef Todd English’s prestigious chain. Mannino’s a guy who commands a six-figure income, not someone who stoops to catering work to make a buck.

And yet: Catering is exactly what Mannino was doing last month when Neighborhood Restaurant Group co-owner Michael Babin found himself in a tight spot, too. Babin was down a chef at Rustico, his casually sophisticated gastropub in Alexandria, after Frank Morales decided he could do better elsewhere. Babin wasted little time in finding a replacement: Less than two weeks after Morales split, NRG publicly announced Mannino as executive chef at Rustico.

How could Babin be so certain so fast about his new hire? Particularly at a restaurant where beer, not the wine that French-trained toques like Mannino so love, reigns supreme? It’s simple. Babin had seen Mannino’s work up close for months. The chef had been working at NRG’s catering company since November, shortly after the Presidential’s swan dive into oblivion.

Babin and Mannino met each other last fall and hit it off immediately. The two men decided early on, Babin says, that they wanted to work together on a project in the future, a promise that might lead the more suspicious among us to wonder if Morales’ days had been numbered for months. But Babin is quick to shoot down that idea; he says there’s absolutely no connection between Morales’ sudden departure and Mannino’s sudden hiring. “It was just a fortunate thing that he was working for me,” Babin says.

Like Morales before him, Mannino has little experience designing menus around beer, whether preparing dishes with suds or pairing dishes with suds, but that didn’t bother Babin. The owner was looking for other qualifications. “The biggest requirement was that they put their whole heart into it,” Babin says, “that they’re passionate about it.”

Besides, Babin notes, Mannino “has a great inspiration, as anybody would who comes into the company, in Greg Engert,” the suds-savant beer director at Rustico. “Greg is a huge resource.”

Just spend 20 minutes on the phone with Mannino, and you can hear his passion. It rat-a-tat-tats against your ear in the form of Mannino’s fast-paced, upstate New York dialect. But it also shows itself in the chef’s decision to strafe the old dinner menu; by next week, most of Morales’ former creations will be history.

Mannino has already added, or will soon add, a wide variety of dishes: braised lamb ribs with chickpea salad and yogurt sauce, soft-shell crab on housemade pappardelle, a Mediterranean-style pizza topped with (no kidding) hummus and Greek salad, and an eggplant Parmesan dish with buffalo mozzarella and eggplant puree. Mannino has even reworked the hamburger with an assist from NRG’s in-house butcher, Nathan Anda, who’s performing a quick salt cure on his aged beef cuts before grinding them into a custom-made patty.

At this point, Mannino says he’s more interested in working with Engert to find the perfect beer pairings for his food than he is in developing dishes that incorporate beer. But even in the latter category, the new chef has been experimenting: His new menu includes an appetizer of Wellfleet oysters on the half shell, sprinkled with a smoked pepper lambic mignonette. He’s also looking to work with NRG’s pastry chef Josh Short to create a Kentucky Bourbon Stout malted ice cream.

I’ve stopped by Rustico twice now since Mannino assumed control of the kitchen, and the results are palpable, even in dishes that the chef didn’t create. The summer melon and cherry tomato salad, a Morales holdover, is treated with utmost respect; its sweet and tart flavors expertly balanced with a light tangy blue cheese. Even better, Mannino’s burger, a huge handful with a subtle aged-beef funk, may soon become one of D.C.’s most talked-about patties. And his braised lamb ribs, at once sweet and savory and smoky, are sure to become a Rustico signature.

Is it any wonder that Babin has already decided that Mannino is the right guy to lead the kitchen as Rustico expands to Ballston next year—and possibly other locations, too? “With Steve at the helm,” Babin notes, “the prospect of spreading Rustico goes way up.”

Voted Haute

Arra Lawson performed so well at Addie’s in Rockville that, earlier this year, the toque was given the executive-chef position at Black’s Bar & Kitchen, the Black Restaurant Group’s Bethesda property. But Lawson couldn’t seem to summon the magic touch a second time; he apparently ran into conflicts in the new kitchen and was ousted by a majority vote of BRG principals, says owner Jeff Black.

“Something misfired,” Black says. “The chemistry just wasn’t right.”

It wasn’t any one major issue, Black says, but more a collection of small ones, like a “punctuality problem” and conflicts with some of the cooks in the kitchen. Instead of letting it fester, BRG management decided to tackle the conflicts head on. Black and two other BRG managers, including the one for HR, looked into the situation and took a vote over whether to release Lawson. The tally was 2-to-1 against the chef.

Black was the lone dissenter. As the big dog at BRG, Black could have trumped his managers, but he opted to let the majority rule. “I have to look at the whole and what’s best for the restaurant.”

Black didn’t have to look far for Lawson’s replacement: Quanta Robinson was already the No. 2 cook at Black’s when BRG tagged her to take the lead spot. She’s been with the Black Restaurant Group for years now, working her way up from line cook at BlackSalt to the top position at Black’s.

Robinson isn’t revamping the menu at Black’s—at least not yet. With all the changes in the kitchen of late—Robinson is the fourth executive chef at Black’s in the past 15 months—Black says he doesn’t want to create more chaos by overhauling the menu, too. Instead, Robinson has been using the specials menu to test her new creations, like a soft-shell crab with black-eyed peas in a light veal-based sauce.

“There’s been enough change,” Black says. “We got to think of the customer here.”

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