Manina restaurant review: Putting an Italian spin on the Chesapeake

Manina defies easy labeling. The lone independent restaurant amid a clutch of fast-food feeders in a new shopping center in Frederick, Md., the outlier goes by an Italian name — “delicate hands” in English — but pledges allegiance to the bounty of the region.

The restaurant, conceived by self-taught chef Paul Benkert and his wife, Caroline, is also a model of restraint, almost Nordic in its design. A semicircular bar draws eyes to the center of the wood-paved interior, whose large windows dapple the tables with sunlight. A wood-burning hearth to the right of the entrance and a collection of antique baskets on a rear wall complete the timeless picture.

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Hoping to emphasize the food at Manina, “we didn’t want the inside to be too busy,” says the chef, who credits his wife for a look that’s spare but thoughtful. Piedmont blues, the chief background music, contributes to a sense of place.

You’ll want a drink. Benkert owns the Bluebird Cocktail Room in Baltimore and previously served as bar manager at the soon-to-reopen Woodberry Kitchen, also in Charm City. Part of Manina’s story, the bit about promoting local ingredients, is revealed in some of the spirits on display. Appalachian Daisy, which drinks like a mezcal margarita, relies on smoked apple brandy from Baltimore Spirits Co. While the gin for the elegant Bee’s Knees is Barr Hill from Vermont, the honey to sweeten it comes from a queen bee breeder in Baltimore.

You’ll also want something “quick & little,” per the menu, to accompany the liquid pleasures. Vegetables and dip sound routine, but they make such an impression, one of us attempts to re-create the tableau for his book club the next week. Scarlet baby carrots, verdant cucumber slices and shiny red Jimmy Nardello peppers tickle you with their colors, and the dip — fermented ricotta swirled with minced shallots and rosemary — encourages you to finish your vegetables.

A more spectacular example of the region and the season brings together a cornucopia of earthy beets, sliced apples, Italian plums, red bell peppers, clouds of ricotta — a farm market, really — and grace notes of bright delfino cilantro, everything more vivid with lemon vinaigrette. Citrus in the Mid-Atlantic? The chef, who remembers customers bringing their own lemons to the uncompromising Woodberry Kitchen, makes allowances when they make sense.

Why Manina? For one thing, the Benkerts already have a bar — something for adults. The couple, parents of two young children, felt something more family friendly fit their lives in 2022. The chef says “manina” is also a nickname for “a small child helping in the kitchen.”

The same charming server who steers you to something sublime in a Nick and Nora glass also tells you that “much of what we serve comes out of our oven” fueled with cherry wood and oak. That includes fish cakes. “Crab is too expensive,” says Benkert, 33, a Rockville native whose restaurant career has found him mostly in the front of the house. The chef, front and center at the hearth, likes the idea of serving plentiful, invasive — and delicious — blue catfish from the Chesapeake.

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His recipe starts with fillets poached in buttermilk and butter and gains savor with sweet onion, cilantro and breadcrumbs from house-baked loaves. The end product is a couple of dainty fish cakes, crisp on the bottom and served with a tartar sauce that gets its spark from chopped bread-and-butter pickles. Try the small plate with a petinay from the Wine Collective in Baltimore, a fine marriage of petit manseng and chardonnay. (What’s not from Maryland or Virginia on the wine list is from Italy.)

The Italian accents on the menu nod to Caroline Benkert’s Sicilian heritage. The owners intended to open the restaurant as primarily a pizzeria; the pandemic and a lack of labor tweaked the notion, says Paul Benkert.

Pizzas made with local flour come in half a dozen flavors, “coppa & cress” leading the pack with fat-streaked, house-cured meat and peppery greens on a base that doesn’t subscribe to one pizza philosophy. Even his staff have asked Benkert what style they’re serving. “We do our own pizza,” he says. If you like a hand-rolled crust that’s thin, crisp throughout but also chewy, this is where you want to park yourself.

The menu is short. Besides pizza, there are just two main dishes, chicken and lasagna, both thoughtfully offered by the half and full portion. The chicken is air-dried for a day before it’s roasted in a cast-iron skillet, making for a blistered skin that crackles at the touch of a knife. A cilantro-bold gremolata turns the entree into something special. The lasagna is constructed from hand-rolled pasta, ricotta, mozzarella and crushed tomatoes: simple comfort finished with chopped basil.

Not all dishes set off charm alarms. The deviled eggs are plain eating despite the bacon-laced chow chow showered on them, and the clever combination of smoked wild swordfish, shaved onions and whipped ricotta on a pizza plays up the cheese to the detriment of what’s supposed to be a play on a bagel with lox. The slices sag under the weight of too much ricotta. Manina also opened without a phone number, a detail the owners say they plan to change.

Save for its cool interior, however, the restaurant feels as if Alta Strada merged with the Dabney. This is a farm-to-table retreat that doesn’t find it necessary to blast the theme with a long spiel from the staff or a pitchfork on the wall.

As Benkert says of the region where he cooks, “There’s just so much good stuff out there now.”

Pie! So few restaurants offer it. Manina is the happy exception. One week it’s raspberry, a jammy pleasure. Most recently, sliced apples raised the tender roof of whole wheat bread flour and butter. Benkert uses mostly sorghum to sweeten the filling and impart the sense of baking spices. (Your mind might register cinnamon, although there’s none in the pie, served with lavender whipped cream.) Similarly, the maple butterscotch pudding relies on maple syrup for its deep flavor. The kitchen embellishes the confection with jewel-like raspberries and a chewy granola bar that’s not much more than oats and maple syrup and plenty good on its own.

With a few dinners under my belt, Manina isn’t as hard to peg as I thought going in. Lovely pretty much nails it.

3290 Bennett Creek Ave., Frederick, Md. No phone. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining and (limited) takeout for lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $26 (for three house-cured meats), pizzas and main courses $19 to $60 (for whole chicken). Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry/ADA-compliant restroom. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.

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