by Dame de la Chaîne Peggy Floria
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C., embarked on an adventure of summer discovery at Semifreddo Restaurant in Manassas, Virginia, on July 30th, 2023. Chef Franklin Hernández and his wife Zaira Rodriguez honored attendees by opening their restaurant’s doors exclusively to the bailliage, allowing members to fully experience at their leisure Chef Franklin’s deep understanding of authentic Italian cuisine paired with Italian wines custom-selected by Fabio Morrone of Bravo Wine Imports.
“Cooking has always been a passion of mine.” Chef Franklin started his culinary journey as a teenager at Ecco Café Pizzeria in Alexandria in 1988, learning the restaurant business from the ground up. He quickly worked his way from kitchen staff to Assistant Manager to Chef at Pizza de Resistance in the Courthouse neighborhood of Arlington. By 1994, he was working at Primi Piatti in DC under three powerhouse chefs: Savino Recine, Roberto Donna, and Luigi Diotaiuti. Franklin worked with Luigi for 18 years and helped him open Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle. He had amazing opportunities along the way: participating in the Beauty of Basilicata dinner at the James Beard House and as a sous chef to cook at the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. Luigi spurred his creativity on by holding monthly contests at the restaurant to see who could create the best food on the menu. It was at this point that Franklin said to himself: “One day, I will open a restaurant…I’ll hang on, because one day, it will be me.”
“This is my opportunity!” In 2017, Franklin helped a friend open Tortino Mare in Manassas Park, and operated as chef there for 2 ½ years to the delight of customers. The owner of Canterbury Village Shopping Center in Manassas was so happy with the quality of the food that he asked Franklin to prepare a birthday dinner for his wife and several guests. The owner was so amazed that he offered Franklin space in his shopping center, and Semifreddo was born.
“Not even the pandemic could stop me.” Chef Franklin worked with high school friend and architect Carlos Alexi Guzman to design Semifreddo, a name suggested by his wife Zaira because the semi-frozen almond mousse with cookies and nuts was her favorite dessert. No sooner did they open their restaurant than the pandemic hit, and Franklin nimbly created a carry out menu for customers. By December 2022 he expanded the restaurant to include a private dining room.
“When I’m going to create a plate, I’m going to make something different…something that delights my clients…my clients inspire me.”
Members and guests were welcomed by Semifreddo’s staff with a glass of Marino Abate Inzolita Frizzante Pét Nat (Pétillant Naturel) NV from the clay hillsides of the Marsala region of Sicily. The hand-picked grapes arrive at the winery in small crates to prevent damage and undesired fermentation. The grape must, after natural static decanting, ferments for about 20 days at 60° F. and remains sur lie for about two months with periodic “bâtonnage”. The unfiltered wine goes through secondary fermentation in the bottle, resulting in a bright straw yellow wine with lasting effervescence.
Attendees greeted friends and met new ones as attentive staff offered a selection of fresh hors d’oeuvres: buttons of polenta baked and dusted with parmesan cheese, lamb meatballs in a homemade tomato herb sauce, and insalata caprese skewers. Throughout the dinner, Chef Franklin and staff thoughtfully accommodated guests’ gluten-free and food allergy needs.
With an open kitchen in the center of the restaurant, members were able to observe Chef Franklin’s culinary magic in action while dining in a spacious, open floor plan punctuated by a sleek and sophisticated modern wood and glass interior with subtle lighting that created flow and still allowed for elegant, intimate dining.
Bailli Mazza formally introduced to members Chef and owner Franklin Hernández and his wife, Zaira Rodriguez, who also functions as the General Manager of the restaurant.
In between nibbles of housemade, pillow-soft carmelized onion focaccia, bailliage members and guests introduced themselves.
Dinner began with a delicate Uovo di Quaglia Tartufato, a Northern Italian dish from the Piedmont region. Pan fried quail eggs were served over homemade Tuscan herbed crostini bread with freshly picked sauteed wild oyster and shitake mushrooms and finished with delicately shaved black truffles. The dish was paired with a Marino Abate Perricone “Ricamo” 2019, also from the clay hillsides of the Marsala region of western Sicily. A deep ruby red color, it has an ample, intense nose and is massive yet extremely elegant on the palate. Initially fermented in stainless steel tanks then transferred to small French barriques, Members commented that this wine not only was a perfect pairing for the dish but was “approachable,” and its softness easily lent itself to being served on its own. It is interesting to note that “Ricamo” means “embroidery” in Italian, and Chef Franklin wove the wine’s notes of violet flowers into the dish by placing delicate tiny violets around each finished plate.
Pasta met the sea in Linguine Nere in Carne di Granchio. Chef Franklin blended his homemade tagliarini (a little thicker than angel hair) pasta with hand-extracted squid ink as a beautiful background for jumbo lump crab meat, wilted spinach, and Sicilian capers in extra virgin olive oil and chardonnay wine sauce, finished with a lemon zest. Fiano di Avellino DOCG “Bacio delle Tortore 2022, Passo delle Tortore “2022 was a bracing accompaniment to the dish. Made from 100% fiano grapes from the Lapio section of Campania, Italy, the grapes are hand-picked and transported to the cellar for soft pressing. The juice is clarified by natural cold sedimentation, partly fermented in stainless steel tanks and partly in new oak barriques, producing a white wine with hints of honey, linden, and tropical fruit.
One bailliage member said of this dish: “I spent five years in Italy, and this dish is the closest thing to a fish pasta dish that I have tasted in the U.S that I was used to getting in Italy. The capers give it wonderful flavor…an unadulterated Italian dish. This was classic Italian cooking in the U.S. using Italian ingredients as Italians would use it.”
Next was Dentice Amalfitana, a beautiful filet of red snapper coated with fresh tomatoes and crusted with fresh herbs and Parmigiano Reggiano; as if this were not indulgent enough, it was accented by a prosecco wine sauce with perfectly grilled asparagus. Greco di Tufo “Le Arcaie 2022, Passo delle Tortore,” brought a bright, youthful assertiveness to the dish. A clone of the greco bianco grape, this wine is believed to have been introduced to Campania by the Pelasgians, an ancient population from Thessaly in Greece. The name Tufo refers to one of the villages from which the wine comes as well as the type of rock from which the village was built. A fresh, elegant wine with notes of apricot jam, yellow peach and cinnamon, this wine will surely only get better with age.
The final savory course was Filetto di Manzo al Barbaresco, a pan-roasted filet mignon with green pepper corn and shallots in a creamy Barolo wine sauce served on top of a bed of turned potatoes. The dish was delicately accented with Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes and microgreens. The filet was cooked to a perfect temperature, and the sauce was deep, rich, and fresh. Bruno Rocca Rabaja, Barbaresco DOCG 2019 from the Barbaresco/Piedmont region of Italy was a brash, exacting counterpoint to the dish. Made from 100% nebbiolo from a small family-owned vineyard, the intense and deep garnet color, and soft and fatty tannins, were simultaneously elegant and sumptuous, reflective of the Barbaresco vineyards’ proximity to the Tanaro River and lower elevations.
Fabio Morrone from Bravo Wine Imports, worked closely with Chef Franklin to pair each course with the perfect wine, and talked diners through the important elements of each wine served.
Dessert was a doubly joyous experience—panna cotta—a traditional dessert of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, flavored with Bailey’s and finished with flaked coconut and shaved dark chocolate.
A glass of Semifreddo’s homemade chilled limoncello (a house specialty), was the traditional “digestivo” that completed the moment. One bailliage member exclaimed that it literally captured “summer in a glass.”
As the evening concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza presented a Chaîne plate and engraved Chaîne silver wine coaster to thank Chef Franklin, Zaira, and the entire staff of Semifreddo for a great dinner and “extraordinary evening, with great attention to detail and accommodation of every request.”
Enzo Livia, Vice Conseiller Culinaire of the Bailliage of Greater Washington and owner of Il Pizzico Restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, added his praise, declaring the dinner was “wonderful, balanced, and on point.”
Chef Franklin thanked Bailli Mazza and attendees, saying he believed that this was the “beginning of something special.” He remarked “I feel happy by what I do and what I have learned. It isn’t easy to have a restaurant of this category without going to culinary school.”
When asked what he would like everyone to know about him, he said: “I would like the world to know that I came here as an immigrant with a bright dream, I took opportunities and took advantage of the moment. If you have a dream here—if you work hard, you’ll see the results of your labor.”
Semifreddo…an unexpected culinary destination not to be missed.
Wine and grape notes from:
Marino Abate: www.nicolabiscardo.com
Fiano di Avellino: https://shop.passodelletortore.it/
Greco di Tufo: https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-greco+di+tufoGreco
Bruno Rocca Rabaja: https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-barbaresco
Editor’s note: Peggy Floria is a long-time fan of Chef Franklin Hernández and Semifreddo and brought the chef and his restaurant to the attention of Bailli Judy Mazza, leading to this wonderful event. She personally interviewed Chef Franklin and Zaira for this article. If you have a favorite neighborhood restaurant that you think would be a good venue for a Chaîne event, please let Judy know!