THE PLAQUE on the wall of the cluttered office reads "Pietro Orcino, Restaurant of the Year, 1971."
It was, in part, an award for bravery. When his catering business, Avignone Freres, survived the 1968 riots, Orcino refused to leave his Columbia Road location. His restaurant and walk-in trade tumbled, down to 10 percent of what it had been. "We had a tough time," he said simply. Finally, after dinner theater and some other gimmicks failed, he did close.
In May 1977, he reopened. "We had an empty dining room, we were seeing more people on the street, we felt things were changing." He was right. Adams-Morgan was changing and Orcino's stubbornness may be paying off. The simple restaurant setup ("it's not intended to be classy") and delicatessan counter have caught on with the neighborhood. People in casual dress drop in for coffee and pastries during the day. Families come for dinner at night.
Orcino, who is 71 and feels "as young as ever," said Avignone Freres now serves 300 to 400 persons during a weekly Saturday and Sunday brunch. He and his son, who works with him, talk of reinstating "exclusive gourmet dinners" sometime soon.
On this day, however, the talk is of the past. Pietro Orcino first worked with the Avignone brothers as a baker in 1932 soon after he arrived in this country from his native Italy. He returned in 1940 and, in 1945, took over their catering business and restaurant.
During its golden age, after World War II, Avignone Freres was the dominant catering firm in the city and, according to Orcino, the restaurant was "the Rive Gauche of those days." Patrons came from the stylish Kalorama apartments. Sometimes for luncheon, they would chose instead the Garden Tea Shop. Located in the corner building that now houses the Biltmore Ballroom at Columbia Road and Biltmore Street, it was very old-style Washington: sandwiches, no liquor, cafeteria-line service.
A closer rival, before Orcino came on the scene, was an ice cream shop called Bud's Ice Cream Parlor. It disappeared during the Depression and eventually was replaced by the Gartenhaus building.
In his own time in the neighborhood, Orcino remembers Julie's, an Italian restaurant; Cafe Don, "a neighborhood emporium," a drinking establishment with good food; the Hungarian restaurant that became the Omega in the late '50s; the Black Angus, a steakhouse in the location now housing Columbia Station. Chinese cuisine was represented long ago by the Sun Restaurant, in a storefront Avignone Freres took over in 1962. Perhaps most famous, although not for its food, was the Showboat, around the corner on 18th Street. Pete Lambros brought Charlie Byrd into the lounge there in the mid-1950s and it became the most successful nightclub in town.
These have all gone. Others have come and Orcino is frankly startled at the variety of foods now available in the area.
"Now we get some calls from the suburbs," he said. "People say, 'We remember you. Is the restaurant still there? We want to come.'
"Then they say, 'But will I be safe?'"
These days Orcino is saying yes.