ll Frank Abbo served in 1920 when he opened the Roma restaurant was spaghetti and meatballs. It was also all he cooked and all he rang up on the cash register (50 cents for lunch, $1 for dinner, coffee and salad included).
That's because Abbo was the chef, the waiter and the cashier. "He'd come out from the kitchen and take the order," said his son, Bobby, who now runs the restaurant. "Then he'd yell back to the kitchen for the cook to start preparing it. Then he'd run back to the kitchen and cook it. He didn't want people to know it was just a one-man operation."
Currently, there are seven cooks, four cashiers and 12 waiters at the Roma. But the spaghetti and meatballs remain.
"We're proud to sell spaghetti," said Abbo. "You go downtown, you can't find it."
Nowadays, with restaurants serving a few twists of saffron fettucine in lacquered bowls on blush-colored tablecloths, a load of spaghetti and meatballs served on big white plates on red-checked vinyl is about as chic as fried bologna rings.
Yet however many times we eat sun-dried tomato linguine, there's nothing quite like a mound of homey spaghetti. As restaurants serving pizza with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts have come and gone in Washington, many of the gran dame of Italian restaurants have lasted. Gusti's, a local institution, recently closed its doors after many years, but many others have remained: Marrocco's, Trieste, Maggie's, Anna Maria's, to name a few.
And in recessionary times, business at these often lower-priced restaurants may even grow. Marco Troiano, owner of Pines of Rome, where the spaghetti and baked pasta dishes are $5.50, said the restaurant's business is up about 10 percent from last year. "I don't have to increase prices. I'm established. I don't owe money," Troiano said.
People patronize some of these restaurants for far more than the food, whether it's the prices, the kitsch, or the kick of ordering the spaghetti and meatballs of their youths -- however overcooked and oily -- for their own children.
Of course, these establishments serve a lot more than spaghetti. In the days when "ethnic" meant pepper steak at a Chinese restaurant, Italian-American restaurants offered fried chicken and chicken cacciatore, hamburgers and meatball subs.
The more authentic Italian ones branched out into hearty, comforting feasts: thick chops, platters of sausage, braciola or seafoods tangled with noodles, monumental portions of lasagna, manicotti or ravioli awash in chunky tomato sauces.
While the world changes, they stay the same. And that, in fact, may be the secret to their longevity.
At A.V. Ristorante Italiano on New York Avenue NW, where "Ciao, Ciao Bambina" plays on the juke box and the table-top Chianti bottles are encased in green candle wax, owner Sue Vasaio said the current menu is virtually identical to the one the restaurant first opened with in 1949. Not only that, but some of the restaurant's rubber and snake plants are also 52 years old.
Adelphi's Ledo restaurant, which opened in 1955 and has been crowded ever since, has had only two chefs in 36 years. The first chef, Chris Nitsakes, who died about seven years ago, worked until the end, according to co-owner Thomas Marcus. "He was born on Christmas day and died on the Fourth of July," Marcus said. Although he was 87 when he passed away, "he could do more work than somebody who is 27 years old," Marcus added.
What's more, Ledo's infamous pie-like-crusted pizza is made with the same exact ingredients, even manufactured by the same food companies, as it was when the restaurant first opened. "We haven't changed one thing," Marcus said.
At the Roma, where you can stare at mounted wild game heads from your red leather booth, the blind piano player has been there for more than 10 years. "Everything here is in decades," said Abbo. "Nothing happened yesterday at the Roma. Everything, we've just been doing forever."
These places sell nostalgia to the well-traveled or familiarity for the unadventurous. New restaurants open, offering "things you don't know what you're eating," said Nicholas Charuhas, co-owner of the Italian Inn in Hyattsville, established in 1961.
Of course, many have updated their menus. Ledo now sells a vegetarian pizza, and Luigi's, on 19th Street NW since 1943, has added several new dishes such as lobster ravioli and gnocchi al pesto. Still, far more people order lasagna than lobster ravioli, admitted owner Giobatta Bruzzo. And at the Pines of Rome, eggplant Parmesan is still one of the restaurant's bestsellers, according to Troiano.
What have changed are the neighborhoods in which many of these restaurants originally opened. Vasaio remembers when the corridor of New York Avenue used to be the Italian section of town, and how there was a horseshoer's shop a few doors up. Vasaio's late husband opened a pasta factory across the street from the restaurant in the early '60s, selling homemade pasta, wholesale and retail. It only lasted a couple of years. "Pasta was just not in," said Vasaio, who now runs A.V. with her two sons, John and August. (The name of the restaurant, A.V., stands for the initials of both her (Assunta Varriale) and her husband (Augusto Vasaio).
Bruzzo of Luigi's remembers when 19th Street "was almost suburban." In the '60s, the heart of downtown Washington was around 9th Street, not 19th.
The heart of many of these restaurants is the clientele, many of whom have been loyal for years. Vasaio said she has one group of diners that has been patronizing the restaurant every Friday for lunch since 1950. Through death or retirement, the group, employees at the Department of Labor, has dwindled from about 12 or 15 to eight or nine. Vasaio said they never order; "we make up a menu for them for the day."
Added Abbo of the Roma, "we have great-grandmothers, grandmothers and granddaughters all at one table. They know what they want before they sit down."
Aside from the loyalty of everyday citizens, many of these eateries have attracted a famous following as well. Abbo says a few senators regularly eat at the restaurant, and George Bush stopped in once when he was vice president.
Among the many celebrity pictures on the deep red walls at A.V. is Jack Nicholson. Vasaio said that the actor has eaten at the restaurant "on and off" through the years. Most of the time he orders buccatini a la carbonara, Vasaio said. Once he stopped in with Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito.
While Vasaio said there are many dishes that regulars come in for -- the eels, goat, meat platter, fish -- at some establishments customers go to great lengths for a favorite dish.
Marcus of the Ledo restaurant said he recently sent 10 pizzas by Federal Express to an FBI office in California. Somebody who worked in the Washington office was transferred to the West Coast, Marcus said.
"A fella came in that took five pizzas to Ireland," Marcus added. And a retired Air Force One pilot who now lives in Hawaii "takes a few back with him," when he visits the area. The pizzas are half-cooked, and plain -- no perishable toppings are included.
For most of these restaurateurs, their establishments are literally their second homes (in many cases, they probably spend more time at them than at their actual homes). They've watched patrons come, go and grow. They welcome them like family. So it's easy to see why places like A.V. have lasted so long. Simply put, Vasaio said, "I love it."
A.V. RISTORANTE'S SPAGHETTI WITH MEAT SAUCE AND MEATBALLS (4 servings)
FOR THE MEATBALLS:
1 pound ground chuck
2 heels stale Italian bread, soaked in water and drained
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Vegetable oil for frying
FOR THE MEAT SAUCE:
1/2 pound stew beef, cut into small cubes
2 onions, chopped
6-ounce can tomato paste
2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 pound spaghetti, cooked
To make the meatballs, combine all ingredients and shape into balls. Fry meatballs in vegetable oil until browned and cooked through.
To make the meat sauce, brown the stew beef with the onions until the onions are completely softened, about 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes and basil and stir. Add the meatballs and cook, covered, over low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Serve over spaghetti.
Per serving: 968 calories, 67 gm protein, 76 gm carbohydrates, 45 gm fat, 14 gm saturated fat, 287 mg cholesterol, 1064 mg sodium.
PINES OF ROME EGGPLANT PARMESAN (8 servings)
FOR THE EGGPLANT:
2 1-pound eggplants, unpeeled, sliced 1/2-inch thick
4 eggs, beaten
3/4 to 1 cup flour
Soybean oil for frying
1 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
FOR THE SAUCE:
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
28-ounce can whole tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Dip eggplant slices in egg, then flour. Pour enough soybean oil in a large frying pan to come an inch up the pan. Fry slices about 3 minutes on each side. Drain.
In a 8-by-12-inch oven-proof glass pan, place a layer of fried eggplant, then a layer of thinly sliced mozzarella. Repeat layering two more times so that there are three layers of eggplant and three of mozzarella.
Bake eggplant for about 5 minutes in a 500-degree oven.
To make sauce, saute' garlic in olive oil. When it starts to turn golden, add the tomatoes with the juice. Break each tomato in half with a knife. Bring to a boil. Add the parsley, salt, pepper and bay leaf. Let boil for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 5 minutes.
Slice eggplant into squares. Place on plates, and top each square with a ladleful of sauce. Top with grated Parmesan, if desired.
Per serving: 388 calories, 17 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 182 mg cholesterol, 415 mg sodium.
LUIGI'S LASAGNA (10 servings)
Luigi's makes its lasagna al forno with homemade green noodles; here is a reasonable facsimile.
FOR THE SAUCE:
1/2 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced very thin
1 celery stalk, sliced very thin
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained
Salt, pepper and sugar, to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
1/2 cup red wine
FOR THE BECHAMEL:
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Nutmeg, to taste
Olive oil and salt for cooking lasagna
3/4 pound lasagna noodles
15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1/4 to 1/3 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
To make the sauce, saute' onions, carrots, celery and garlic in olive oil until golden. Add the tomatoes, mashing them in the pot as they are added. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat, uncovered, for 1 hour. Add salt, pepper, sugar and optional red pepper flakes and cook for another 1/2 hour, covered. In the last 20 minutes of cooking, add 1/2 cup red wine.
To make be'chamel sauce, bring milk to a simmer in a small saucepan. Melt butter in another saucepan and gradually whisk in the flour. Cook for about 2 minutes, but do not let the mixture turn brown. Remove saucepan from the heat and add hot milk, whisking constantly. Return saucepan to low heat and cook, whisking constantly, for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce is medium-thick. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Cook pasta in salted water with a few drops of olive oil until al dente. Drain.
In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, spoon enough tomato sauce to just cover the bottom of the pan. Cover with a layer of lasagna noodles, then tomato sauce. Spoon on a third of the ricotta, then a third of the be'chamel. Cover with a layer of pasta, then tomato sauce, the ricotta and be'chamel. Repeat one more time. Top with a layer of sliced mozzarella. Cook at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until piping hot. Remove from oven and sprinkle with optional Parmesan.
Per serving: 336 calories, 13 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 483 mg sodium.