The obituary of Margarita "Mama" DeSantis Castro that ran June 25 reported that Luigi's restaurant, founded in 1943, might have introduced pizza to Washington. Pizza was also on the menu of Ciro's Italian Village Restaurant, owned by Ciro Gallotti at 1304 G St. NW, no later than April 1943. (Published 6/27/2005)
Margarita "Mama" DeSantis Castro, 87, the "Mama" behind a string of Mama's Italian restaurants in Washington and Northern Virginia, died May 29 of congestive heart failure at the Heritage Hall nursing facility in Leesburg. She lived in Oakton.
Mrs. Castro arrived in Washington in 1950 from the Italian province of Abruzzi, where she was born, and went to work at Aldo's Cafe, a restaurant her sister owned at 22nd and M streets NW. Using a recipe she brought from Italy, Mrs. Castro made the restaurant's first pizzas.
She sometimes claimed to have introduced pizza to Washington, but Luigi's restaurant, founded in 1943, would seem to have a stronger case. Nonetheless, Mrs. Castro's pizzas proved popular with college students and became a staple at restaurants that opened under her name at six locations throughout metropolitan Washington.
While working at Aldo's, she met a Spanish immigrant named Ernest Castro, and they were married in 1955. Together, they opened Mama's Original Italian Restaurant at Dupont Circle in 1960. When the restaurant moved a few blocks to 14th and P streets NW in 1963, Mrs. Castro's likeness was emblazoned on a sign above the door and an awning stretched across the sidewalk. She was in charge of the kitchen, and her husband worked in the dining room.
Mama's quickly became a favorite late-night haunt and was visited by such luminaries as President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini and members of the Washington Senators and Washington Redskins.
The restaurant's long hours -- it was open until 4 a.m. -- twice led Mrs. Castro and her husband into trouble with the law. In 1966, their liquor license was suspended for five days after they were found guilty of selling alcohol after hours. In 1970, vice squad detectives entered the restaurant at 3 a.m. and ordered pizza and scotch. When they were served their drinks -- in coffee cups -- the undercover officers promptly arrested Ernest Castro, along with 21 imbibing patrons, for violating the District's 2 a.m. curfew on liquor sales.
After the District's alcoholic beverage control board revoked the liquor license, forcing the restaurant to close, Mrs. Castro insisted that it was the result of envy.
"Mama has the best food in the world -- that's why we have enemies," she told The Washington Post. "People are jealous of me. We have good, steady customers -- good people -- senators, congressmen."
"My dad used to joke that he served the best cup of coffee in Washington," said the Castros' son Ernie. "They suspended the license for three months. We got a family vacation that year. We spent the whole summer in Italy and Spain."
When they returned to Washington, the Castros opened a restaurant in Woodley Park. After a few years, they retired to Florida but soon grew bored and moved back. In 1976, they launched a new Mama's Italian Restaurant in Rosslyn. With their sons, they opened a restaurant in Fairfax City in 1985 and another one in Sterling in 1989. The Fairfax Mama's is still in operation.
Mrs. Castro, her son said, was known for her fresh bread, her minestrone soup, her homemade sauces, her pizzelles -- small Italian cookies -- and, of course, her pizza. A collection of her recipes, "Mama's Cookbook," recently went on sale at the restaurant.
After her husband died in 1997, Mrs. Castro, who lived in McLean and Vienna before settling in Oakton, often visited the Fairfax restaurant, now run by her son Ernie. Some of the cooks had worked with the family for years, and Mrs. Castro never hesitated to step into the kitchen to offer her advice.
She was a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Vienna.
In addition to her son, of Oakton, survivors include another son, Tom Castro of Ashburn, and five grandchildren.