In the Entertaining column in Sunday's Magazine, the pizza restaurant in Georgetown was misidentified. It is the Italian Oven, with locations also in McLean, Fairfax and Arlington.
Tracing the culinary career of Italian-born chef Luigi Zara is akin to tracking the travels of a seasoned diplomat. He has cooked his way from his hometown of Treviso to Alexandria, Egypt, and on to some of the capitals of Europe -- Bonn, London, Paris and Rome. His posts have taken him from the kitchens of war camps to hotels, private homes and foreign embassies.
So after 52 years of cooking, the past 17 1/2 as executive chef of the exclusive Georgetown Club, it seemed fitting that Zara's retirement be celebrated in no less a capital than Washington, D.C.
Though he left the Georgetown Club in the hands of chef Renato Violante as of Feb. 1, Zara hasn't given up cooking altogether: he still rises early each weekday to prepare breakfast for his two grandchildren.
"He told me he wouldn't retire until his hair turned white," laughed Norman Larsen, general manager of the Georgetown Club, which hosted a farewell dinner for Zara earlier this month. "Luigi has yet to have his first gray hair."
Indeed, Zara appears young for his 66 years -- a short, portly, passionately Italian man whose resume emphasizes practical experience more than classical training. And as he recounted his past recently, he painted a colorful tale in his rich accent.
The road from Treviso to Washington was circuitous if nothing else: His mother owned a fruit and vegetable shop in Treviso, but Zara took up his vocation at age 14, first as a maker of ice cream, and later as apprentice in a neighborhood rotisserie.
At 19, he volunteered for the army ("I was stupid," he said with a shrug) and applied as a cook in an officers mess, a fortuitous move that allowed him to avoid basic training and remain at home.
But Treviso proved too quiet a duty for the young Zara, who sought adventure -- and found it unexpectedly -- by joining the paratroopers and serving as head cook in the officers' division. By 1942 he found himself in North Africa, and in the hands of the British Army, which sent him first to Alexandria, then on to Cairo where he cooked for the victors of World War II.
At war's end, Zara returned to Venice and worked in several hotels before deciding to leave post-war Italy for what he assumed to be a more prosperous England. Leaving his sons Denio and Bruno in Italy with his mother-in-law, Zara and his wife Ada left for England, where Zara served as the personal chef of a textile businessman, accompanying his employer on frequent sojourns throughout Europe.
His next job, a 1 1/2-year stint at the Turkish embassy in London, gave Zara a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous -- Winston Churchill and the queen were dinner guests -- and became his ticket to America when the ambassador was reassigned to Washington. Zara debated the move at first but was reminded by his employer that "people would cut off their ear to go to America," reminisced the chef, who opted to go.
Zara was less excited about following the ambassador's career to Spain thereafter. "The ambassador said he couldn't pay like in America, but he was like a father to me," recalled Zara. "If you insist, I serve you," he remembered telling the ambassador, "but I think I want to bring my children here" and become a citizen.
Zara retained his work permit by working in the kitchen of the Australian embassy, where at a dinner function he met Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who sympathized with the chef's desire to settle down. Zara told the story as if it were yesterday: "Don't worry, Luigi," Humphrey counseled Zara. "Come into my office and I'll take care of you." No sooner had the chef arrived home from the senator's office, than the phone call from immigration came: Zara was on his way to citizenship.
Following a position as sous chef in the Jockey Club, and a brief tenure as owner of the Alfonso restaurant, Zara sent for his sons in 1966.
The children, by this time young men, worked alongside their father after he joined the Georgetown Club in 1969, but have since left the kitchen to pursue non-culinary avenues. Zara is philosophical about their departure: "I tell them to learn everything, tomorrow they might need it."
If he is philosophical, he is passionate. In fact, "passion" was the word most frequently used to describe Zara the evening of his farewell dinner at the Georgetown Club, and friends and associates nodded knowingly when manager Larsen included the following in his musical tribute to the departing chef:
" . . . Luigi, Luigi . . . his passion and his heart, his body and his soul he gave . . . Luigi, Luigi . . . say it loud and the pots they are clanging, say it soft and it's angel choirs singing . . . Luigi, Luigi . . . "
The chef's temperment is classic Italian, his cooking decidedly continental, judging from his menus of beef wellington, sole veronique, and steak au poivre. At a subsequent reception held in his honor this month, he said he came away hungry from an otherwise attractive buffet. Was the food that bad? No, he protested, "the portions were too small," which was Zara's way of describing nouvelle cuisine.
In some ways, Treviso has never left Zara's mind: Long before raddichio became a chic commodity in the capital, the Zaras were growing the vegetable in their back yard, allowing it to mature in their basement, and serving it at special family occasions, recalled son Denio. And it became more or less tradition for Mama and Papa to stage for their guests spirited pasta sessions, in which Mama "always won hands down," laughed the younger Zara.
With his farewells behind him, Zara is anxious to return to Italy for the summer months, which he plans to spend in Treviso with his wife, his friends -- and his scrapbooks, the chef added with a smile. LUIGI'S CREAM OF LEEK SOUP WITH PECANS (6 servings)
White portion of 6 leeks
1 small onion
2 tablespoons butter
4 medium potatoes, cubed
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup whipping cream
Approximately 1 cup pecans, finely chopped
*Thoroughly wash the white part of leeks. Slice leeks and onion and cook over low flame in butter until golden and transparent. Add potatoes and cover with stock. Bring to a boil and reduce heat; simmer for 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Pour into a blender and pure'e. Add cream and place in refrigertor until thoroughly chilled. To serve, thin with cream, if necessary, and garnish with pecans. LUIGI'S COLD POACHED FISH WITH WATERCRESS SAUCE (6 to 8 servings)
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
Vinegar to taste
2 slices lemon
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
3 1/2 pounds cleaned bass
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 bunch watercress, stems trimmed
2 tablespoons chives, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
Hot pepper sauce to taste
White pepper to taste
FOR THE GARNISH:
Hard-cooked eggs, sliced
*Combine celery, carrot, onion, and butter and saute' approximately 8 minutes. Add wine, water, vinegar, lemon, bay leaf, and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Place the bass in the liquid, adding more wine/water if necessary to cover. Cover pot and poach fish just below a simmer, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove fish from stock and allow to cool.
To make the sauce: combine sour cream, mayonnaise and watercress and pure'e. Add remaining ingredients and beat well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spread over skinned fish. Garnish and serve.