Restaurants featured in this article:

A.V. Ristorante Italiano, 607 New York Ave. NW.

Geranio Ristorante, 722 King St., Alexandria.

Famous Luigi's, 1132 19th St. NW.

Marrocco's Italian Restaurant, 1120 20th St. NW.

Petitto's Ristorante D'Italia, 2653 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Pines of Rome, 4709 Hampden Lane, Bethesda.

Positano Ristorante Italiano, 4940 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda.

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Viva Italian Comfort Food!

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 1997; Page N28

Ten years ago, 20 years ago, probably longer ago than that, one of the first places newcomers to Washington were taken was A.V. Ristorante Italiano just east of Mount Vernon Square. Founded in 1949, it was such a landmark -- with its five-foot-tall alabaster Leaning Tower of Pisa, marble bar and huge 18th-century fireplace nearly obscured by the helter-skelter of kitsch and knickknacks, and its famously temperamental kitchen -- that it drew regulars from all over the area even as the neighborhood ran down. Knowing about A.V.'s was proof you had become acclimated: Long before I lived in Washington, I was taken to dinner there by a boyfriend with a summer job and ran smack into my ex-boyfriend who was also here for a reunion with his college roommates. It might have been a disaster except for the irresistible camp of the decor. By the end of the evening, even the staff was laughing with us, riotous as a '40s movie scene.

In a business as trend-driven and market-driven as the restaurant industry, and especially in an area whose population is as fluid as Washington's, 20 years is a milestone. Sheer excellence is no guarantee of longevity, nor is celebrity. In fact, if Washington does have a soft spot in its collective heart, it seems to be for the homier hangouts, places where the transplanted and homesick can get back in touch with small-town style. No matter how hot a Tuscan grill or a designer-pasta palace may become, it will never replace those old-fashioned Italian restaurants, the sort of informal, low-profile, dependable mamma's or papa's joints that provide both comfort food and the comfort. And, paradoxically, where grumpy waiters are often part of the charm. After all, red-and-white tablecloths and dripping candles stuck into straw-wrapped Chianti bottles wouldn't be cliches if we didn't coddle memories of them.

So let's take a moment to salute a few of the more venerable Italians still catering to our spaghetti sentimentality: A.V.'s, Marrocco's Italian Restaurant and Famous Luigi's in midtown D.C., Geranio in Alexandria, the Pines of Rome and Positano in Bethesda and Petitto's Ristorante D'Italia in Woodley Park.

A.V.'s is still the place to take newcomers, and to make, at least, sentimental visits. Many people know something about A.V.'s, even those who have never been there: the white pizza, the fountain in the concrete "piazza" outside, the kitchen table-style jelly glasses the wine is served in, the "insider" advice to order whatever the cooks' special is rather than what is on the menu. (The true name, A.V. Ristorante Italiano, was shorthand for husband and wife owners Assunta and Augusto Vasaio, and the appropriate homeyness of calling it A.V.'s joint long ago institutionalized the apostrophe.) Though Augusto died 15 years ago, Assunta (called Sue) and their two sons have kept the place going in almost exactly the old ways.

(There is more to the Vasaio saga than that for dedicated diners, namely Fio's in Kalorama. The name "Fio" is short for chef-owner Fiorenzo Vasaio, son of Augusto's brother Franco, who moved to Washington in 1949 to help out at A.V.'s before he and Fio opened their own place in a popular 16th Street apartment building in 1978, which means it's almost made the magic 20, as well.)

In 1950, when Edward Marrocco opened the original Marrocco's, it was on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Foggy Bottom, a regular hangout for both George Washington University students and pre-platinum card era feds. Marrocco's has been on 20th Street NW for 15 years now, and the clientele is a little more heavily weighted toward business types -- "you're uptown, you gotta upgrade some," as he puts it -- but the restaurant's style is pretty much the same, with homemade pastas and pizza, a nice-but-not-formal burgundy-accented dining room upstairs and an outdoor patio.

Luigi's is even older than A.V.'s and Marrocco's, going back to 1943, and though it has upscaled its menu a bit over the years, it still has the look and fragrance of the old days. Its family connections range even more widely than Fio's, though also with an upward-looking trend: Owner Corrado Bruzzo first worked in and then took over the restaurant in 1964 from his wife's uncle, Luigi Calvi; Bruzzo's daughter Deborah and her husband, former Galileo chef Carmine Marzano, own the popular Luigino in the historic Greyhound building near the Convention Center; and Corrado Bruzzo Jr. was a founder of the now-closed Donna Adele in Dupont Circle.

Lucio Bergamim opened Geranio in 1976, long before King Street was the restaurant row it has become in Alexandria; and for 21 years he's been turning out the same kind of food -- as he puts it, "11 fish, six veal, five chicken breast and 12 different pastas," not to mention the local fave deep-fried fresh mozzarella. "It's a wonderful restaurant," he says with conviction and a beat you could dance to.

One of the great and classic-before-classic-was-chic dishes at Pines of Rome on Bethesda's Hampden Lane is the broiled flounder, slashed to hold slivers of garlic and lemon. I know: I ate it at least once a week for years. And it used to have some of the most truly grumpy waiters on staff as well; it was a challenge to charm even your regular server. But the Pines is also famous for its white pizza with fontina cheese and for the carbonara, a dish so rich in cream, cheese and bacon that it would set the scales on fire.

There is probably no more lovably over-the-top decor in the Washington area than the mini-village and cafe warren on Bethesda's Fairmont Avenue that is Positano, with its murals and grape arbors and colorful pottery. (Does anyone else remember Annette Funicello in some ancient Disney movie singing "Funiculi, Funicula" in the village cafe? It's like that.) The stories about owners Luigi and Angela Traettino are just about as theatrically endearing: One is that like a lot of first-time visitors, Luigi was actually trying to find his way to downtown D.C. nearly 40 years ago when he stumbled into Bethesda. The other is that the house special "vitello matrimonio," the "marriage" of veal scaloppine and boneless chicken stuffed with sausage and zucchini and sauteed in Marsala wine, was one of those miraculous what's-in-the-refrigerator creations by Angela one night when they were home alone.

Woodley Park's Petitto's, one of the relative old-timers in that intermittently trendy restaurant strip, started out as strictly a pasta palace -- "We make the most extraordinary pasta because pasta is all we make," was its original slogan -- but it only held out three months before adding meat and seafood dishes to the menu. Still, pasta's the main draw: Customers are invited to order three-fers of pasta either as entrees or appetizers, and some of the pastas on the menu today were there 20 years ago.

Petitto's officially opened on Oct. 3, 1977, but it's spending all this month celebrating with special theme nights, including a Roman mythology night Sept. 25 with imperial banquet dishes and wait staff in simply divine attire. Every Wednesday is retro night, with '70s style music, stalwart offerings such as spaghetti and meatballs, red-checked tablecloths and even those straw-covered bottles. Fridays are a continuation of the opera nights with three-course menus et aria that Petitto's has been hosting for several years; and Saturdays are strolling-singer nights with accordion accompaniment. This Tuesday, there's a Tuscan grape festival dinner complete with stomping tub and regional dishes. There will be trivia quizzes nightly, and the name of everyone who eats at Petitto's during a special event night in September goes into the figurative hat; the 20 drawn at month's end will be guests at a grand Carnivale finale complete with masks and dancing.

There are other old-time spaghetti houses around as well -- there are plenty of U-Maryland alums who still swear by Ledo's, the circa 1955 staple of Adelphi -- so just for fun, the next time you have a hankering for pasta, skip the trend-setters and settle in for some lasagna and house wine. That's what Italians do.

A.V. RISTORANTE ITALIANO -- 607 New York Ave. NW, (202) 737-0550. Casual; entrees $6-$15. Wheelchair accessible.

GERANIO RISTORANTE -- 722 King St., Alexandria, (703) 548-0088. Casual; entrees $12-$15.50. Limited wheelchair accessibility.

FAMOUS LUIGI'S -- 1132 19th St. NW, (202) 331-7574. Casual; entrees $7.50-$15.95. Wheelchair accessible.

MARROCCO'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT -- 1120 20th St. NW, (202) 331-9664. Casual; entrees $10-$19. Wheelchair accessible.

PETITTO'S RISTORANTE D'ITALIA -- 2653 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 667-5350. Casual; entrees $10.77-$25.77. Not wheelchair accessible.

PINES OF ROME -- 4709 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, (301) 657-8775. Casual; entrees $5.50-$11.95. Wheelchair accessible.

POSITANO RISTORANTE ITALIANO -- 4940 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 654-1717. Casual; entrees $8.95-$19.95. Wheelchair accessible.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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