Closing the Doors The Family Opened
A.V.'s Regulars Return to Wait For a Last Meal

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

Waiters were rolling out of the kitchen with steaming platters of rigatoni and mushroom-topped pizzas, the phone was jangling with more and more orders, and who was that coming through the timeworn front door?

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, leading an entourage for a last gastronomic adventure.

For more than a half-century, the justice has been a regular patron at A.V. Ristorante Italiano, Washington's one-stop answer to Little Italy since the days when Harry S. Truman occupied the White House.

Now, he'll have to find another joint.

After 58 years, A.V.'s owners -- two brothers who took the business over from their parents -- are packing up their all-opera jukebox and their five-foot-tall alabaster Leaning Tower of Pisa and shutting down after their final serving Saturday night.

They have sold their property, at Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW, to developer Douglas Jemal, who plans to put up an office building.

"Isn't it sad?" Scalia asked as he arrived Tuesday for a farewell pizza with red anchovies.

In pinstriped, blow-dried, ever-ceremonial Washington, A.V.'s was unabashedly devoid of artifice, a place where a hardhat could sit next to a congressman, and both could end up sighing and looking at their watches as they waited for the famously surly waiters to bring their dishes.

In recent days, patrons have come for a last look at the marble fountain of Neptune astride three horses in the courtyard; at the suit of armor in the front window; at the golden porcupine fish inexplicably dangling over the cash register.

"It's a boudoir; it's without convention; it's totally unique," gushed Stefan Halper, 63, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, grinning as he took it all in.

Inevitably, any visitor pauses before the blood-red walls and the crazy quilt of framed, autographed photos of patrons past and present: the one of Rep. Dennis Hastert below Sen. Strom Thurmond, who is across from Jack Nicholson, who is next to Dan Quayle, and above Danny Kaye and Wes Unseld and Willard Scott and Dr. Meyer Rosenbaum . . .

Meyer who ?

"A regular," said Augusto Vasaio Jr., A.V.'s co-owner. At the precise moment when Vasaio was born 52 years ago, he was later told, his father was at the restaurant smoking cigars with the good doctor.

His father's distinctly Italian persona still permeates the low-lit, wood-paneled dining rooms 25 years after his death. Augusto Vasaio opened his restaurant in 1949, buying a vacant church in a neighborhood with more than a trace of Italian families.

At first, Vasaio operated an Italian grocery and sold homemade gelato. Then he started the restaurant, from which he served his signature dish, white pizza, still on the menu, along with a litany of other offerings that roll off the tongue like culinary poetry: the Spaghetti Caruso and the Calamari Alla Genovese and the Porchetta Al Forno.

If a patron asked, Augusto Sr. would recommend a dish as he walked through, hair slicked back, always stylish but never wearing a tie. He could be generous with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but he could also be gruff, refusing bread to a mother trying to keep her hungry children happy while they waited in line.

"He was straight out of the old country," said Bernie McKay, 55, a software company executive who ate his first meal at A.V.'s 38 years ago. "I can remember him going between the tables, constantly in motion, constantly watching everything. A.V.'s was like family, and he and his wife were like relatives."

The politicians rolled in, along with lobbyists, lawyers and judges. But the suits never overwhelmed the place. There were also cops from a nearby stationhouse, one of whom fired a bullet into the dining room's ceiling (the hole is still there, covered with tape), an incident that the founder's son is unable to fully explain.

After Augusto Sr.'s death in 1982, his wife, Sue, took over with her sons, Augie Jr. and John DiBari, who have performed every job in the restaurant, cooking, cleaning, serving, stocking and, of course, counting the money.

Along the way, the family bought up adjoining parcels until it controlled a corner a block east of the Washington Convention Center. In recent years, at least two deals with developers fell through before Jemal "made us an offer we couldn't refuse," Vasaio said. He declined to specify the price but said his family is getting $18 million to $20 million for the 21,000-square-foot property.

The money is a nice reward for years of hard work, Vasaio said. But relinquishing the restaurant is giving up the reality he has known since childhood. "It's very hard: You're doing something your whole life, and then you're not doing it anymore," he said. "Unfortunately, in this society, money talks, you know?"

He had hoped that the business would live on in some form, encouraging his son, Augusto III, 29, a waiter at A.V.'s, to open a smaller place. But his son does not want to shoulder the enterprise, he said, "and I have to respect his wishes. It's his life."

Vasaio said he has not had time to contemplate his future, except that he and his wife, Pasqualina, might move to Miami and travel. In the meantime, they're contending with the crowds showing up for every serving, crowds that included Hastert, who came for a dish of polenta sausage Tuesday night, and Jemal, who bought a bottle of wine to toast the owners.

On another day, the visitors included a Republican politico in suspenders decorated with bumblebees; a running club consisting of former Federal Reserve Board employees; an education consultant bedecked in pink; and a law student who came only to photograph the outside for his girlfriend's parents, who went to A.V.'s on their first date 35 years ago.

And there was Agnes Soos, a legal secretary, lured back by her colleagues for the first time since 1973. She didn't like the place then (she claims to have seen a bug crawling up a wall), and it was all coming back to her as she waited for a table.

"It's a dump," she said, pointing to what appeared to be a film of dust visible on a red metallic sculpture hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hall. Forty-five minutes later, she walked out, fed up with waiting for her food.

Craig Brownstein, 50, who works in public relations, recalled that he once boycotted A.V.'s for five years because of the service. When he broke down and returned, he said, "they still treated me bad. But the veal was great."

"Where are we going to go now?" he asked.

When Scalia arrived, his party was shown to the justice's usual spot, a rear room, away from the other diners. At meal's end, he walked to the old metal cash register to pay and say goodbye to the owners.

"We're going to miss you," Scalia said. Vasaio announced that the justice's last meal was on the house.

The men embraced, then Scalia walked out the door, and Vasaio returned to the kitchen to cook up more linguini and white pizzas for patrons yearning for a last taste.

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