In the end, Avignone Freres -- the Adams-Morgan restaurant that was the Rolls-Royce of Washington caterers for years -- looked more like a department store on sale day than an elegant place to eat pastry.
The pots and pans and crystal and china were sold at auction yesterday, and the Columbia Road storefront was packed with about 200 people. There were two kinds -- those looking for bargains and those who hoped to buy a bit of nostalgia.
"It's devastating to me," said Evelyn Gillis, a cake decorator at the restaurant for two years. "I'm here to say farewell. And if Mr. Orcino's spirit is here, to tell him how sorry I am."
Mr. Orcino is the late Pietro Orcino, the man who bought the restaurant from its founders in 1945 and turned it into one of Washington's premier eating and catering establishments. Avignone Freres provided the feasts at countless embassy parties, catered the inaugurations of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, and fed Pope John Paul II three meals a day during his Washington visit.
But after the 1968 riots, the restaurant closed for a time, and though it reopened in 1977, things were never the same. Orcino family members say the neighborhood declined, clients' tastes changed and debts that had accrued over the years became overwhelming. In May 1985, Johnny Orcino, who took over the business from his father in 1982, filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws so he could reorganize the company and try to keep the business afloat. He managed for a year, but by March had to file for bankruptcy liquidation.
For Johnny Orcino and his mother Rosa, the pots, pans, baking tins, neon signs, meat slicers and Vulcan ovens auctioned off were a painful loss. Even the company name was on the market.
"I just want to have something to remember my husband, a few things I knew were dear to him," said Rosa Orcino as she walked through the kitchen with tears in her eyes. Under bankruptcy laws, the contents of the restaurant belong to the court-appointed trustee who put them up for auction, so Orcino had to bid like everyone else.
Little of the restaurant's former grandeur remained. Stale white and pink crystalline bunny candies were lined up in one of the showcases. Green order forms dating from early March were scattered over office desks.
"My grandmother used to bring me here during the war years," said Jack Moran, who grew up in the District. "It was probably one of the classiest restaurants in D.C. during the '40s. I remember as a little boy I had to be on my best behavior, wear a suit."
But good behavior was beside the point yesterday. The crowd was after bargains.
And they found them, Bidder No. 51, Joyce Piotowski of Vienna snapped up several mahogany display cases for the gourmet carryout shop she plans to open to supplement her catering business, Epicurean Events.
"They're antiques," she said, mopping her brow in the heat. "We were willing to bid $2,000 for four pieces, but bid less than a thousand for seven or eight pieces."
The first bidder of the day was Adams-Morgan restaurateur Hilda Rivas, proprietor of Churreria de Madrid. She bought a set of 14 chairs for $55 and a set of 35 chairs for $85. Hector Carrillo, who runs Cafe Don a few blocks away, lost out in the bidding for the chairs Rivas bought. He ended up buying a more expensive set from the upstairs dining room.
Although Carrillo was serious about bargain hunting, he was a little sad too.
"This is really a wonderful establishment. This is history," he said."For 20 years we've been buying pastry from them -- the best pastry in town. Now we're bonna have to make them ourselves."