Figlio, ricordati che il vino si fa pure con lure .
An Italian saying
There is a familiar tale about an old Italian wine maker who, having been lifted onto his death bed, summoned his eldest son to receive a parting message. As the son leaned close, the father whispered, "Son, remember you can still make wine with pure grapes."
The meaning of this simple homily was never lost on Luigi and Angela Traettino. In an age where food is frequently not what it appears to be -- where naturalness gets processed out, thick brown sauces mask true tastes and the label "homemade" arouses an excitement saved for rare experiences -- they wanted to prove that slow-cooked meals with the best ingredients can still be had at reasonable prices.
Their chance came last year with the opening of Positano restaurant, a small place on a Bethesda side street with a family-style atmosphere and scenes of Italy on the walls. It was an overnight success. The reviewers boosted it, the people swamped it and the cash register showed it easily would top $1 million in revenues the first year.
But Positano is not going to last the year. Luigi and Angela, who for 18 years had dreamed of owning a restaurant in the U.S., are pulling out while still in the first stretch. They've been hassled by accountants and lawyers, sabotaged by jealous employes and, most importantly to them, taken away from their three teenage children.
So in three weeks, they'll be giving up the pots and pasta, drawing the family together again, folding their dream up neatly and tucking it into that corner of the mind where dreams go.
Their story has many of the classic trappings of an American success story: Luigi arrives in New York City with 45 cents in his pocket and a dream in mind, marries Angela, works odd jobs by day to earn a living and in restaurants at night to learn the business, keeps one step ahead of immigration officials and, finally, reaches the top. It is filled, too, with an almost unbelievable collection of experiences that seem to touch on everyone from John F. Kennedy to the staff of the Upper Volta embassy.
Their story is a lesson in the timing of success and the familiar misfortune on too much happening too soon. It is also a study in media hype. Framed in the windows of Positano are the many praise-filled reviews that gave the restaurant its early fame. Luigi especially remembers two Washington Post reviews that ran within three days of each other and which, together with a Washington Star piece, first put Positano's on the must-try list.
"The effect was like when a river damn gets broken," he said, recounting the week the reviews appeared. "It was something I had never seen in this business. In Italian, we'd call it a 'bomba.' That means it was like a bomb. Like several bombs. Like several atomic bombs."
Luigi is the story-teller in the family. Every episode in his life is itself a chapter, he will say, and an afternoon with him can go on for a long time. His enthusiasm, his robustness, his broad-grinned charm are always engaging.
Angela is more reserved.She is the expert cook, the dynamo in the family and the one who makes the kitchen at Positano's churn.
They are both native Italians -- he from a small town in the south, she from the north. They met on a train to Naples 20 years ago. Soon after, she left for the United States to serve as a nanny to the child of an Italian general. When Luigi finished his tour in the Navy, he followed.
From the start, Luigi wanted to open a restaurant. His family had been in the food business for centuries. "If you travel from Naples on down, in every restaurant you're likely to meet a relative of mine," said Luigi in a boast he insisted was only slightly exaggerated.
But landing in this country without money or permanent status, and with only a poor understanding of English, Luigi had difficulty finding a job. He was hired for a short time by the Italian embassy, after which he wrangled a position as a car-polisher on the servant ataff of Hugh and Janet Auchincloss, the step-father and mother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
That was the summer of 1960, and Luigi and Angela spent a good part of it at the Auchincloss' summer home in Newport, R.I. It was there that the young immigrant from Italy, then 24, met the future president of the United States -- who, according to one of Luigi's favorite stories, once counselled Luigi never to give up his dream.
Shortly afterwards, Luigi drove Auchincloss' Bentley into the porch of the main house. It was an innocent mishap. Luigi, who did not know how to drive, had been asked to fetch the car and was anxious to please. Shaken by the incident, he and Angela resigned.
Like many of Luigi's stories, this one ends with him discouraged and depressed, ready to pack his bags and return to Italy. But two things drove him and Angela on; their desire to own a restaurant and their religious faith. They tend to explain their turns of good fortune as acts of grace.
From Rhode Island, the Traettinos moved to New Jersey where Luigi worked for a construction company.They then returned to Washington. Angela stayed home to raise three children while Luigi took various embassy jobs, working at one time or another for the Italians, the British, the Vietnamese and several small African nations.
"I had to keep my diplomatic visa because I could not get permanent papers," Luigi said. Though he visited the Immigration office many times to apply for citizenship, he said he was discouraged by the red tape involved and was told repeatedly his Italian papers had been lost.
Four years ago, Luigi was hired by the International Monetary Fund as a messenger. He entered school to learn a skill and subsequently rose to the job of draftsman. Meantime, while working nights in a restaurant, he met someone he described as "an official high up in the Immigration office." He called the meeting an "act of God."
Last November, with the help of the Immigration official, Luigi and Angela finally were granted U.S. citizenship. Within one month, Luigi and a partner had signed a lease for a former sandwich shop at 7905 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda.
They spent four months scrubbing the place and redecorating it. The initial investment totaled roughly $28,000, according to Luigi. Positano opened in April. (The name refers to an Italian town that has special significance for Luigi.)
It is easy now to romanticize the Traettinos' tale. Luigi does so himself. He likes to see in himself both the everyman and the superman.
He is especially proud to have made it in the restaurant business. "This business is very competitive," he said. "It's like being an actor or actress -- millions of people try but only a few become famous."
But stardom, in any field, has its hassles. Early on, Luigi and his partner clashed. It happened after the first rave review. The partner upped the restaurant's prices the next day. He also removed three of Angela's favorite dishes from the menu because they took too long to cook, and there was talk of cooking ahead and freezing various other dishes.
Luigi bought the partner out.
There were problems finding capable cooks and waiters. Sometimes the situations became almost comical. "One night I had five chefs in the kitchen that I was trying out," Luigi recalled. "But none of them spoke English. At the end of the night, the only one left was my wife.
"Another time, I hired two cooks -- one an Arab, the other a Jew. Each one tried to show off. Then they started talking politics. It was terrible."
Luigi also claimed he was the subject of sabotage by others who were jealous of his success and wanted to learn his secret. "They'd come in for jobs, first one and then his friends. They would try to take over. When I wouldn't let them, they'd suddenly quit -- in the middle of a busy night."
What is the Traettinos' secret? It is a combination of delicious food, a casual setting and a celebrated reputation.
"We use only the best ingredients," said Luigi. "If the meat or fish is bad, I'll throw it out and tell people to pick something else. And our prices are reasonable. There is nothing on the menu for more than $9.50." (He said he loses money on three entrees and makes it up on the pastas.)
Most of the recipes belong to Angela. Cooking in large quantities is nothing new for her. She comes from an extended family of 46. "The seasoning is very simple," she explained. "I don't use hot spices. I cook the way I like."
All Luigi and Angela ever wanted was a family restaurant, but it became much more.At first, Luigi thought he could keep his job at the IMF and work at Positano at night. But last fall, he took a leave of absence from the Fund. The restaurant was turning into a 20-hour-a-day job for both him and Angela.
Even his children were drawn in after school. Janet, 15, served as cashier; John, 12, helped out washing dishes; and Jimmy, 16, bussed tables.
Meantime, their grades suffered.
"One night in December, I asked my accountant how much business we were doing," said Luigi. "He said at the rate we were going, we'd go well over $1 million the first year. I said, 'Wait a minute, this is no longer a family restaurant. This is big business and I'm not prepared.' "
"This is our baby but it's an adopted baby," said Luigi of his restaurant. "What were we to do with our own?"
Last month, Luigi and Abgela decided to sell -- to Christian Demergue, an owner of the Bread Oven, and Jean Michel Farret, owner of Jean Pierre. But the buyers will get only the lease and the tables. The name Positano stays with the Traettinos, who hope to reopen at another Bethesda location in a few years when their children are older.
"It was a beautiful experience, it really was," said Angela, tired but looking forward to a rest.
They sold out for something under $175,000 and know they could have gotten more. After Feb. 24, Angela will return to cooking for just family and friends. Luigi is already back at his desk at the IMF.
"Now I can say, with a touch of pride, we did something," said Luigi. "We showed that still, today, you can make it using the real things. You can make wine with grapes."