When Katherine Burk left a photo exhibit downtown in search of lunch Thursday afternoon, she suggested to her husband and two friends that they stop at Famous Luigi’s. Burk was feeling nostalgic: At age 15, she had her first date at the old RKO Keith’s theater, where the Old Ebbitt Grill now sits, and followed up a screening of the James Bond flick “Thunderball” with pizza at Luigi’s.
“It was really the only place in town to get fabulous pizza. . . . This was real pizza in an oven, made by real Italians,” Burk says about that day back in 1965. “It was a place where you borrowed your father’s car and took your date.”
Famous Luigi’s won’t be a date destination — or even a friendly neighborhood lunch spot — much longer.
The pizza-and-pasta parlor will cease operations after Saturday night’s service, just a month or so after the restaurant celebrated its 70th anniversary at the same address, 1132 19th St. NW near Dupont Circle. A young Italian immigrant from Genoa, Luigi Calvi, opened the place in 1943 as a pizzeria, nothing more. But in a bold, almost prophetic move, he named it Famous Luigi’s, perhaps because by the 1940s, Calvi had already established a reputation in the District as a restaurateur and nightclub owner.
Deborah Bruzzo, great-niece of the founder, isn’t sure why Calvi decided to align himself with fame from the outset of his pizzeria, but she has a theory: “He knew it was going to be famous one day,” she said with a laugh.
Housed in a two-story, 19th-century structure with a glass-enclosed atrium extending from the base of the building, Famous Luigi’s earned its fame perhaps the hardest way possible: It survived.
The place has survived recessions, wars, the 1968 riots and countless dining trends, from the rise of fast-food chains to the popularity of Neapolitan pizza. This weekend’s closing of Famous Luigi’s will officially end its run as one of the oldest restaurants in the area.
Famous Luigi’s almost didn’t make it past 1961, when its founder died. The restaurant was passed down to a niece, Maddelena, who lived in Genoa at the time. She was engaged to a man named Corrado Bruzzo. The young couple decided to come to America, run the restaurant for a while to pay off debts, then sell it and go back to Italy. But then, Deborah Bruzzo said, her parents saw the great potential of the place.
Corrado and Maddelena Bruzzo also saw all the challenges they faced: They spoke no English, and the entire kitchen was run by African Americans, including the boss of the staff, Gladys Mix, known as the “Queen of Pizza.” There were language and cultural barriers for the new owners. Then there was the food at Famous Luigi’s, which had expanded beyond pizza: The kitchen was serving ravioli out of a can.
Corrado Bruzzo was horrified. He called in family reinforcements from Italy to teach the staff how to make pasta. “People never tasted handmade ravioli before,” Deborah Bruzzo said. “It just took off.”
The Bruzzo family lived above the restaurant until the late 1960s, when they moved out and expanded the restaurant to the second floor. Except for a period in 1968 — when Corrado Bruzzo packed his family off to Italy to avoid the riots in Washington — those early years above the restaurant were magical for Deborah Bruzzo, who was born in 1965.
“I remember when I lived here,” Deborah Bruzzo recalled. “I really thought downstairs was my house, too, and I always kept on thinking that my parents had all these people over for dinner every night. It was exciting to go down there.”
The 1970s were the height of popularity for the restaurant, a time when Americans still considered Italian cuisine a plate of ravioli and a bottle of chianti (in a wicker basket, of course) on a red-checkered tablecloth.
But with the rise of such chefs as Roberto Donna, who introduced Washington to the delights of regional Italian cooking, Americans slowly began to learn that Italian cuisine was more than spaghetti and meatballs. Their dining habits shifted to upscale restaurants serving risotto and osso bucco and Barolo wines. Famous Luigi’s would always have its place, almost a niche for those who wanted an old-fashioned taste of Italian American red-sauce cooking, but it would never be the king again.
When Corrado Bruzzo died in 2009, he passed the business (and debts) along to Deborah Bruzzo and her brother, Corrado Jr., who lives in Florida. Deborah Bruzzo, who has run the place for four years, says the debts are part of the reason for closing, but she says it’s also time to let it go.
“There comes a point in life where you just have to say, ‘I got to follow my dreams and follow what I’m passionate about,’ ” said Deborah Bruzzo, who’s planning to write a book about her family’s history. “It was a tough decision, but down in my heart, it’s the right decision.”
Her decision may hit hardest with the staff. Several of them have worked at Famous Luigi’s for decades: Filomena Cenere, 73, has been a server since 1971. Pizza man Rafael Bonilla, 44, has been there since 1986, with only one year off to work construction. Cook Rosa Chavez has been slicing and frying eggplant in the kitchen for 41 years. Server Miguel Olivares, 63, has waited on tables for 29 years. He has a one-word response to the closing: “Brokenhearted.”
Some of these people plan to retire, like Corrado Sr.’s brother, chef Nino Bruzzo, 74, who has been in the kitchen since 1970. He wants to go fishing. Others aren’t so sure. Cenere says she gets bored at home. She might work again.
“But I’m not going to be a waitress,” she said. “It’s a hard job.”