A.V.: True to Its Roots For Nearly 60 Years
Friday, May 4, 2007
It has been a Washington institution for nearly 60 years, and a sort of Rorschach test for at least 10, but after several reprieves, the end of A.V. Ristorante Italiano may be near. Although "nothing is set in stone," according to t he family, there is a sales contract, and as the restaurant always closes for three weeks in August, at the end of July it may go dark forever. Even if it's granted another stay, real estate development marches on, and eventually, like much of the neighborhood east of Mount Vernon Square and the convention center, this labyrinthine old eatery, and its outdoor patio, which has looked out over several generations of renewal and decline, will be razed.
You have been warned.
There's little point in treating this as a traditional review; A.V. is the sort of place patrons either love or belittle. (Its advocates are many and famous: Perusing the autographed photos of the celebrities and politicians that are gradually going dim and dusty is one of several A.V. traditions.) But if this odd piece of local culture is unknown to you, or you have always intended to visit, you should consider it. In the age of trattoria and designer pasta, A.V. remains a monument to the heyday of the homesick Italian restaurant.
The place itself is a "Sopranos" stage set: a series of smallish, dark rooms painted bordello red and crowded with photos and such kitsch as a five-foot alabaster Leaning Tower of Pisa and, curiously, several renditions of Don Quixote. The jukebox is still stocked only with opera, many tracks of which are touchingly worn, and the huge 18th-century fireplace dwarfs its own andirons. There is still a folding-door public phone booth near the kitchen. And the "piazza" -- for concrete or not, you can't possibly refer to something with a fountain of Poseidon as a patio -- remains, though the jungle of plastic greenery and Christmas lights I remember are gone. (There is one brighter party room in the back, with an impressive marble bar, but somehow that's not where the action is.)
A.V. can be a madhouse at prime time but a sanctuary of quiet in midafternoon (it would be a great pre-baseball stop). Come in the early evening and family groups of eight and 10 are already into the antipasti, looking as if central casting had just settled them in. There are rumors that a few people have been served wine in wineglasses, but that would almost be a subtle sneer: Drinking out of jelly glasses and old-fashioneds is another tradition.
The kitchen is up a half-flight of stairs, and the cooks usually can be seen storming back and forth. The wait staff is famous for either surliness or suavity, depending on whom you ask (fine by me). And almost everyone has an A.V. story, one of the most famous involving a waiter and a Christmastime patron who got into a fistfight and rolled right into the life-size Nativity scene.
My colleague Richard Harrington remembers taking Rod Stewart there in the '70s for an after-show meal that without Richard's intervention might have earned the shaggy-headed dandy a radical haircut from some unamused Marines. I had a "Casablanca" moment there, running into an ex from another city, and on another occasion, a waiter who overheard me saying that I had been mugged presented me with the empty claw of a six-pound lobster. It was like a mace and must have weighed most of the six pounds by itself.
A.V. is short for the original owners, husband and wife Augusto and Assunta Vasaio -- Gus and Sue -- and the restaurant is still in the family two Augustos further on. (Although there was no apostrophe initially, it has been known as A.V.'s almost from the start.) In 1949, when the restaurant opened, Vasaio began making the white pizza popular in his hometown of Abruzzo, and the crackery-crust pizza sprinkled with garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano is still probably the most famous dish. You can also have it topped with anchovies and fontina: Split it while you read the long, nostalgic menu of pasta, veal and seafood.
In recent years, because times and tastes have changed or because the kitchen staff isn't up to the largest crowds anymore, there have been complaints of soggy pasta and tinny peppers. Here's what you can probably bet on: the stuffed fried artichokes (another longtime staple); clams with white wine sauce or shrimp Fra Diavolo over linguini; whole fish (head on and unboned unless it says something like "grouper steak," which is filleted); and rabbit cacciatore, which is larger and more flavorful than the chicken version. The tomato sauce is so thick and lightly sweet that it tastes as if it has sun-dried tomatoes in it; if you get it with the calamari, you'll be eating for a long time. Everything comes in big portions -- a foot-long red snapper lies at full length with the linguini, which is exactly al dente -- including the side veggies sauteed in oil and impressive amounts of garlic.
There aren't as many organ meats or specialties as there might have been when Augusto Vasaio ran the kitchen, even though chicken livers remain on the menu, and the veal rib roast is only a rare special. You won't need a gazetteer to negotiate the wine list, but you won't need a platinum card, either. Maybe not even a gold one. And while you're at it, drink a toast to all those Italian mamas and papas who brought a little of the old country, homey as it might have been, to so many Washington immigrants.
Note: There are handicapped stalls in the restrooms, but up five stairs; the staff will help wheelchair users up.
A.V. Ristorante Italiano 607 New York Ave. NW; Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown or Mount Vernon Square Phone:202-737-0550 Kitchen hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30-9:30, Fridays 11:30-10:30, Saturdays 5-9:30 Prices: Appetizers $6.50-$9.95; entrees $7.75-$18.95 Wheelchair access: Limited