It may be a Jewish stereotype to eat bagels and lox on Sunday mornings, but it’s something that I do weekly. What’s not stereotypical, but an essential part of my Sunday morning routine, is listening to Nycci (pronounced Nicky) Nellis on her radio show Foodie and the Beast. “The Beast” is her husband David, who is entertaining in his own right, but it’s Nycci who is the prominent “foodie.”
The fact that she’s Jewish plays a significant role in who Nellis is, and how she came to be a DC restaurant pundit. Nellis grew up in northern New Jersey, in a family with a strong Jewish identity. Her maternal grandparents were Orthodox, and her early food memories are in her grandmother’s kitchen helping bake strudel.
“Food played a tremendous role in my growing up, not just because of Jewish holidays, but because of being in a Jewish family,” says Nellis. Her family was obsessed with food, and she recalls that upon finishing breakfast, the conversation would turn to lunch and then dinner. Growing up outside of New York City, Nellis’ parents seized the opportunity to visit incredible restaurants and explore the vast variety of cuisines.
As a student at Simmons College in Boston, Nellis was dedicated to dining, and her passion for food continued when she moved to DC. Her keen interest in restaurant openings and food events, at a time when this information wasn’t readily available, translated to her founding the popular restaurant news website The List Are You On It in 2003. This led to appearances on WTOP 103.5 FM radio, where she continues to chat about the DC food scene. It also led to her own radio show on Federal News Radio (1500 AM), where she converses weekly with chefs, mixologists, distillers, entrepreneurs and other notable leaders in the industry.
Nellis is animated when she speaks. It ratchets up a notch when I ask about her thoughts on local Jewish chefs and the influence of Jewish culture on food in DC, which continues to trend with recent openings including On Rye from Jonathan and Ilyse Fishman Lerner and Shouk from Ran Nussbacher.
“DGS Delicatessen and their matzah ball soup is terrific!” she exclaims. “Mikey Friedman’s All Purpose is not Jewish, but the menu is based on his experience growing up Jewish in New Jersey.” She lights up at the mention of Alex Levin, who, in his previous role as executive pastry chef at Osteria Morini, took orders for challahs and honey cakes during the Jewish holidays. “It’s so exciting that Alex is now executive pastry chef for Jewish chef/restaurateur Michael Schlow,” says Nellis. “There are others like Fabrice Bendano, pastry chef at Le Diplomate. He’s French and Jewish, and is doing amazing work, although he’s not at a restaurant that calls for anything Jewish.”
Nellis is also enthused about the non-Jewish chefs who are catering to the needs of the community. This includes Chef Mike Isabella who offered kosher-style catering at Kapnos and Kapnos Kouzina for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last year. James McWhorter and Yasmin Abadian of the Market at River Falls did the same.
DC is teeming with Jewish food writers. I ask Nellis why she thinks this is the case. “We are all obsessed with food. It’s a part of our upbringing. Gathering people around the table is a very Jewish thing, without being religious. For me…it’s about the life that I’ve led, and my parents and grandparents have led, and what we have done in order for the traditions to grow.”
Thank you, Nycci Nellis for being DC’s ultimate restaurant maven, and for now being part of my Sunday tradition.