For hairstylist to the powerful, a place of honor

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; B01

Diego D'Ambrosio never sits, bouncing between customers, taking reservations, chatting and greeting those who enter his shop with a hearty, "Ciao, bella."

He's a hairstylist to many of Washington's elite, and D'Ambrosio dresses the part, with crisp shirts, silk ties and slacks that rarely show a trace of hair. He hums Italian folk music or sings along with Pavarotti as clients visit.

Photographs of the famous and honored ones adorn the walls of Diego's Hair Salon: Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former Italian ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta, D.C. Council members, high-ranking military officials and international politicians. What keeps people coming back, clients said, are D'Ambrosio's wit, friendship and exemplary service. After haircuts and washes, he always says, "It's a pleasure," or "Thank you, my friend."

"This style of retail has really gone out of fashion," said Steve Levy, 60, who has kept appointments nearly every Friday for 40 years and considers D'Ambrosio a friend.

Friday, after 47 years of being D'Ambrosio's professional home, the short stretch of Q Street NW between 19th Street and Connecticut Avenue was named Diego D'Ambrosio Way.

"He is the foundation stone for the entire area," Levy said before D'Ambrosio warned him, in a thick Italian accent, to be quiet while his scalp was being shaved or risk bodily harm.

The Italian-trained stylist worked in his first shop two years after he came to the United States in 1961, within days of John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration, D'Ambrosio said. About 20 years ago, he moved to his current work space, on the opposite corner from his original salon, and raised the price of a man's haircut by $2 to $20. It hasn't changed since.

Each person who enters the shop is greeted like D'Ambrosio's best and oldest friend. Conversation about politics or opera will often float between chairs, above the hum of the clippers. Many times, a customer will get a referral to a neighboring business or the Italian restaurant owned by the son of one of the other stylists.

But that's not the main reason, D'Ambrosio said, for repeat customers.

"I do good work," he said. "People tell friends."

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger referred Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi referred Wuerl, the archbishop.

'He loves his work'

"What I admire about this man is that he does his work with love. It is clear he loves his work," said Sambi, who estimated that D'Ambrosio began visiting the Vatican Embassy to cut hair in the 1970s. (D'Ambrosio said it could have been earlier.) Il Nuncio, as D'Ambrosio calls him, arranged a brief meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. D'Ambrosio didn't get to cut the pope's hair, but he proudly displays the photos of their meeting at the papal Mass in the District in 2008.

Mark Steinberg, 66, of Old Town Alexandria once worked in the Dupont Circle area and still comes in for haircuts, often with his 7-year-old grandson, Aiden.

"Where else can you go where you get a good haircut, good inside-the-Beltway Washington discussion and learn Italian?" Steinberg asked. D'Ambrosio said he and his stylists speak seven or eight languages.

A couple passes by the salon's window waving frantically until D'Ambrosio spots them and waves back with a broad smile. He returns his focus to buzzing off the hair of a 21-year-old Ohio native, Neil Townsend, who came to the shop on a recommendation.

"He is the most friendly, most charming man," Jeanette "Jan" Fenty said of D'Ambrosio. She is commonly introduced by him as "La mama de mayor," she said. "The 'Ciao, bella!' makes you feel so good," said Fenty, who brings her grandsons to the shop.

As a neighborhood fixture, "Diego is very, very attuned to the community's needs, wants and desires," said Steve Gavula, an owner of Circa at Dupont.

He said D'Ambrosio was supportive as Gavula launched the restaurant four years ago. Since then, the two have worked together to clear their block of trash and rodents and to plant trees and flowers. "It look good, no?" D'Ambrosio said, pointing out his window at a little fig tree, which he said produced at least 10 pounds of figs last year.

Friends and family members sang along to the music blaring from his shop Friday, as meatballs and pastries were passed among the crowd of about 200 people at the street-naming event.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said D'Ambrosio is "not only a fantastic barber this side of Rome, but he is a true Washingtonian."

Fabrizio D'Ambrosio, reading a speech for his father, said that his great-grandfather came to the United States in the early 1900s, but the family went back to Italy.

Diego D'Ambrosio came back to the States to work for the Italian Embassy. The photos that line the walls, his son read, are a sign of continuing friendship with clients, even those who are not are the wall. Those friends "simply wanted a great haircut at a great price along with all the opera they could stand," the son read. His service and friendship "is my tradition and promise to you."

As a recording of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" played, Diego D'Ambrosio pulled the veil off his street sign, and the crowd roared.

Joseph N. Grano, chairman of the Constantino Brumidi Society, said the ceremony had a heartwarming atmosphere. "It was very Italian," he said.

The street name puts D'Ambrosio in the company of former NAACP president Kivie Kaplan, godfather of go-go music Chuck Brown and Ben's Chili Bowl founder Ben Ali, each of whom has the same honor.

Michael Silverstein, a Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, said, "These are the people who give flavor to our neighborhood and bring joy to our lives. They certainly mean more to us, personally, than the heroes who may have fought in a war 100 years ago or may have settled this area 200 years ago, not to disparage them." The commission sponsored the street renaming.

D'Ambrosio said he never forgets where he came from.

A barber's deep roots

The barber was bestowed a knighthood under the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity at a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in September for promoting his heritage. He worked for a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal for Constantino Brumidi for the artist's frescoes in the U.S. Capitol, among other deeds, said an official from the Italian Embassy.

D'Ambrosio also promoted Italian pastry this month on his birthday. Everyone in his shop was fed a piece of homemade Colomba Pasquale bread, shortly after he was serenaded. "Ah! Grazie! Grazie!," D'Ambrosio said, beaming.

When asked how old he is, D'Ambrosio said with gusto, "Twenty-nine!" He and his wife, Rosario, have another son, Mario. Both sons are in their 40s.

"When you really love your job, you never get old," D'Ambrosio said. "No tired. No old."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company