Franklin Hernandez didn’t grow up steeped in Italian culture. But his first job, at an Alexandria pizza shop at age 17, took him culinary miles away from his Salvadoran roots. His career flew from tossing pies to fine dining, working with DC Italian heavyweights Roberto Donna at Galileo and Savino Recine at Primi Piatti before spending 18 years with Luigi Diotaiuti at Al Tiramisu. Hernandez may not be Italian by birth, but after decades of mastering his craft, he is as much an Italian chef as his mentors.
Want evidence? One need only eat a few bites at Semifreddo Italian Cuisine in Manassas to taste Hernandez’s skill. His pastas are exceptional, extruded or rolled so fine that it’s a daring feat to try to boil them to an ideal al dente. But that’s exactly what he does.
Tagliarini, for example, nearly as skinny as angel-hair, emerges from the pot with a toothsome bite. Hernandez reserves a bit of the water from boiling the pasta and then combines it with high-quality Parmesan, butter and just enough white truffle oil to bring the nutty cheese down to earth. Hernandez’s wife, Zaira, who runs front-of-house, appears with a bowl full of black truffles. She shaves one of the tubers until dark flakes almost obscure the noodles. It’s not necessary, but it’s appreciated. It also makes the off-menu special seem like a steal at $35.
For now, most of Hernandez’s fireworks like this exist as specials. “I’m just waiting for this pandemic to end [and] for the people to explore more about Semifreddo,” he explains. “If I come with everything and I put it on the menu, we’ll just waste food.” For this reason, it’s best not to decide what to order until the well-informed server recites her long list of specials. Recent highlights have included whole fish (a mix of Mediterranean imports and local delicacies) presented tableside for diners to take their pick, soups topped with liquid-centered burrata cheese and tender porchetta.
But the more basic printed menu is packed with irreproachably prepared classics, often with a Hernandez twist. Calamari fritti, with its crackling thin crust, is punctuated with pickled jalapenos fried in the same manner. The tangy marinara sauce on the side has its own spice, contributed by a heavy shower of red pepper flakes. Another classic appetizer of meatballs is distinct from others with mild-tasting lamb presented over laudably creamy pools of polenta. The Caesar salad is served grilled but is still fresh and crunchy with a jacket of char and a welcome excess of shaved Parmesan.
With every plate, a server awaits with more grated cheese and a pepper grinder. It’s usually unnecessary, but this is just part of the theater of the restaurant. Due to its small strip mall location, Semifreddo inhabits a strange purgatory between fine dining and suburban casual. There is a ticketed coat check, but it’s just a rack next to the hostess stand. Service is well-practiced and attentive (and adeptly bilingual—many interactions are in Spanish), but it feels out of place in the cheesy blue-lit dining room with a TV at the bar.
Yet Semifreddo is a rare thing for a strip mall in Manassas—it’s a true chef-driven restaurant. Hernandez attracted a loyal fan base at nearby Tortino Mare in recent years, and his diners have followed him to his own restaurant. It’s not uncommon to see him greet customers like friends because that’s exactly what they’ve become. The restaurant’s success says much about both its quality and Hernandez’s reputation, as it is a rare pandemic success. It opened at the end of April 2020, in the very thick of lockdown.
But Hernandez’s star power and foodie finesse make Semifreddo more than a neighborhood restaurant. Who can resist sylphlike fettuccine covered in veal Bolognese that’s cooked into a meaty tomato slurry that coats every satisfying bite? Seafood lovers who prefer to stick to the menu will be delighted with the caramelized edges of thebarramundi, prepared piccata-style with lemon-caper butter. It’s served with soft-centered, crunchy-jacketed potatoes and grilled asparagus as al dente as the pasta.
Some of Hernandez’s following stems from a single dish. His semifreddo was so popular at Tortino Mare that he decided to name his restaurant after it, also a nod to his tenure at Al Tiramisu. The petite mousse is served frozen, hence the moniker, which means “semi-frozen.” It’s speckled with caramelized walnuts and amaretto cookies, but the dessert gets much of its appeal from its plate decorations. Peach and berry coulis are drizzled on the plate in the shape of a flower with a long stem and many leaves. The fruit flavors help bring novelty to each bite.
Though it doesn’t get star billing, the tiramisu is also a worthy finisher to a meal at Semifreddo. Espresso and Kahlúa don’t overpower the more subtle flavor of the mascarpone, and the swirls of coulis are a welcome presence here, too.
Hernandez clearly learned much from the Italian chefs who guided him to his place as one of the region’s finest pasta purveyors. One must know the rules before one breaks them, and it’s when Hernandez shows his creativity that he’s at his best. Looking for dinner with fabulous ambiance? Find somewhere else to eat. But for those who simply want some of the most exactingly prepared Italian food in the region, Semifreddo is bound to become a regular haunt. // 8687 Sudley Road, Manassas
Watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen to distract you from the TV and blue lights.
Calamari fritti, fettuccine Bolognese, semifreddo
Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Appetizers: $10-$14 Entrees: $20-$28 Desserts: $7
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior