Enzio Soviero arrived in Washington a year ago to take life easy and escape big-city pressures. But creating and running restaurants had become a habit for the 58-year-old Italian immigrant, who was soon busy converting a former Georgetown pet store into a family-run restaurant.
In November he opened Enzio's at 2319 Wisconsin Ave. NW, complete with neon sign, smoked glass mirrors, paper napkins and linen tablecloths. Seafood is the specialty, as well as pasta, of course. Also on the menu are native Italian meat and poultry dishes, all prepared by Enzio himself, who will take requests.
It was a family affair from the beginning, with Enzio clearly and firmly in charge. Family members enclosed the storefront windows and paneled the walls, put up the wallpaper depicting Italian villas and statuary, and arranged the laminated plastic tables and the 45 sturdy vinyl chairs.
Restaurant patrons may feel as if they're seated in the Sovieros' home at a family gathering. The children--John Carlo, 17; Antonette, 15, and Enzio Jr., 13--bus the tables in as disorderly a fashion as many a family table is cleared, and jump up from their own plates to attend to new arrivals.
From his chef's spot in the kitchen, Enzio keeps an eye on the entrance of the boxcar-shaped restaurant, cooking and shouting out greetings to customers. He is a man definitely pleased with his domain. And when his work is done and business is slow he will sit and chat and show black-and-white glossy photos of his "pets": two former Enzio's, the Villa Striano, named for his hometown in the Italian province of Naples, and the Villa Lisa, last of his four New York establishments.
With an ambition born of the Old World work ethic, he bought and built and sold and bought again, one after another. Ask him why; for the family, he will say. And you know it's true, because his tale is full of family.
Enzio was in his late teens when Italy went into World War II. He won't say what role his family played in the war, but he will say, happily, that he didn't fight at all. He joined the Navy after Armistice Day and was stationed at the town of Taranto.
After the Navy stint, his father took him aside and said, " 'Take our life savings and go to America. Join your cousins and uncles there and live better.' "
In 1949, with his wife and the savings, Enzio boarded the steamship Vulcania bound for New York and the postwar boom in America. His biggest investment in the future was made on shipboard when he befriended the ship's Italian chef. A partnership was born: Enzio and the chef agreed to open a restaurant together. The next five years of Enzio's life were dedicated to that dream.
His family's life savings went quickly for the necessities of the new household, which soon included two daughters. Despite the protection and support of his American relatives, Enzio was slow to find a job because he did not speak English. He worked on the docks or labored with construction teams and saved for his dream.
"Hard work," he says, "too hard. I work and work and save and save." For the family. His labors paid off, when the first Enzio's opened, with the Vulcania chef who stayed on for 12 years and taught Enzio his skills. Enzio is vague about why the chef left or where he went, but he said his business improved after he himself took over the kitchen.
In less than a year after it opened Enzio's began to prosper, and the family's place in the neighborhood was firm. He dispatched his wife and daughters to Naples to entice his parents to New York. "And then," says Enzio, "I give them the best. I take care of them."
Enzio speaks proudly of his family, the two daughters from his first marriage. Carmelina, his oldest daughter, was accepted to Hunter College law school, achievement enough for her father. She chose to marry instead and is a mother of two living in New York. Josephine, the second daughter, is principal of an English school in Naples where she lives with her husband and son.
Enzio divorced, and remarried in 1961. His second wife, Maria, 40, was the social secretary to a monsignor in Vatican City whom he met on a plane from Rome. After a year and several visits, he brought her back as his bride. John Carlo, Antonette and Enzio Jr. are the children of his seond marriage.
Enzio's parents died several years ago in Naples. After living in America for more than 10 years, his father said one day, "It's time for me to go home." His mother followed a year later.
He speaks sadly of their departure, but boasts of the many trips across the Atlantic he took to continue to care for them and to bury them.
Though he says he does not miss his New York establishments, he speaks lovingly of them. Here, he wanted a place he could handle himself, where he could do all the cooking and where his family needn't worry about his suffering a second heart attack--and that is just what he got. The pace is a little slower, as business has been slow, though the hours are long and the restaurant is open six days a week. But the goal is the same: to give the best to the family.