‘It was my life’

Sergio Ristorante Italiano survived 37 years — until the pandemic. Here are its employees’ stories.

‘It was my life’

Sergio Ristorante Italiano survived 37 years — until the pandemic. Here are its employees’ stories.
Sergio and Valerie Toni drink coffee in their closed restaurant in Silver Spring.

The show lasted nearly 37 years. You could catch it almost every night, from Monday to Saturday, in the unlikely venue of a basement of a Doubletree Hotel in downtown Silver Spring.

There, at Sergio Ristorante Italiano, Sergio Toni and his son, Luigi, took center stage in shirt sleeves and neckties, amid a whiff of garlic and opera music — always opera music — as the soundtrack. The choreography varied. Though Sergio had thinned in recent years, regulars remember him as the biggest guy in the room, the one who greeted them with bearhugs and golf jokes. After dinner, he sometimes visited their tables with a bottle of sambuca and enough glasses for a communal toast.

Luigi was usually the straight man to his father’s ham. But he was no less the entertainer, performing sleight-of-hand tricks with wine corks or playing cards. He was the restaurant virtuoso who could fill in for the cook, install the espresso machine, mix a cocktail one moment and dazzle diners the next by taking a huge party’s order without jotting down a word — and then reciting the whole thing back verbatim.

It was the kind of place you had to hear about to know about. It didn’t top lists of the area’s hot spots, and in more recent years, it certainly wasn’t a hashtagged destination for Instagram influencers. The habitual customers came from the nearby neighborhood of single-family homes and high-rise apartments. They’d bring friends, who’d see them get the special Sergio treatment: the big Italian greeting and the special attention. The occasional local government official or former Washington pro football player would come by. And there’d be a steady flow of guests from the hotel upstairs.

Over the years, even as the likes of Chipotle and Starbucks cropped up around Silver Spring’s revitalized downtown, the restaurant Sergio Toni opened so long ago remained an oasis of old-school formality. White tablecloths and cloth napkins remained on the tables, and the waiters still sported ties. The menu endured, mostly impervious to trends, and patrons could count on the zuppa ai frutti di mare and the housemade ravioli stuffed with asparagus and ricotta.

A wall plaque in Latin translates to: “Come to me, all whose stomachs are in distress, and I will restore you.”

Staff stayed for years, decades even — a rarity in the high-turnover restaurant world. The most regular of regulars didn’t need menus. They didn’t need to say which table they preferred. The waiters already knew.

But then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and the show couldn’t go on, not for Sergio or for thousands of other restaurants around the country. Some restaurants that initially shuttered because of the coronavirus reinvented themselves as takeout joints or outdoor-dining destinations, toughing it out even in winter months with creative structures and lots of heat lamps. Some have welcomed diners back as states and localities have eased restrictions on in-house dining.

But many still couldn’t keep up, and their closures have left holes in the communities they fed and in the lives of those doing the feeding. According to the National Restaurant Association, the coronavirus era has seen 110,000 establishments closed temporarily or for good. And most of those that don’t plan to reopen were well-established businesses: On average, they had been in business for 16 years, and 16 percent of them had been open for at least 30 years, according to a survey by the association.

Sergio Ristorante Italiano was one of those long-tenured restaurants lost to the pandemic. We asked Sergio’s former owner and staff about how they ended up at the restaurant, what they’ve been doing since it closed, and their plans for the future. Here’s what they told us, in their own words:

Sergio Toni, 84, owner

I was born in the kitchen. In Rome, my father and mother had a trattoria. I spent my life in restaurants. To me, it was a joy. It was my life. But now that it is closing, I have all the time, but I don’t know what to do.

I still have the key to the restaurant, and my wife and I go there for a couple of hours most days. We make coffee. She does the crossword and I do the sudoku. It’s just a couple of hours, just to get out of the house. We were open here for 37 years.

I’ll tell you a story: I was in America in 1968, and I was working at the Cantina d’Italia downtown on M Street. I started running the place. I stayed for a few years, then I went back to Italy, and the owner of the restaurant came to Italy and wanted me to come back and run a restaurant for him. So I came back. But this restaurant, I didn’t like the menu, and if I don’t like the menu, I don’t do it. So I go back to Italy again. And the man who owned the Sheraton, he was a customer of the Cantina d’Italia, and he came to Italy and wanted me to open a restaurant in the hotel. So this, I do.

The customers loved us. I had people who came for 37 years. They were happy. We had a very good reputation. If we had stayed open, my son, he would take over the business. He’s worked here for 37 years, too. I enjoyed every day, even if I spent 12 hours working. It didn’t feel like a job. Then comes this mess. We had planned to reopen, but the hotel is still closed, and they are selling the building. It wasn’t feasible for us to reopen, because the restaurant’s bathroom is inside the hotel. So we can’t do it. It’s not just us. There are others that have closed. What can you do?

Luigi Toni, 59, manager

We closed March 15, at first hoping to reopen by June or July. The hotel people kept going back and forth, and so by October, we said, “Just give us a definite answer,” and they said, “We’re planning on selling the place.” That’s when we decided to cut our losses and to close. It was a bit of a shock. I was looking forward to taking over the restaurant when my dad retired. It gave me a kind of a punch in the gut, a now-what-am-I-going-to-do feeling. It was a given. My father was going to retire next year, and I …

Now I’m starting to look for a job at a restaurant. I’m looking at a few places in D.C. I’m almost 60 years old, and the restaurant business, it’s more of a young business in terms of employees. I have a lot of experience, but I’m at an age where it’s difficult for people to hire me. But I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not going to open another restaurant, even if I could, once the pandemic is over. It’s still quite a risky business, and I have no intention of putting my family in that position.

So now I cook a lot. Homemade pasta, or I grill some fish — things we used to do at the restaurant. Or different cuisines, like Indian. Something to keep me occupied. It seems like the weeks are getting shorter and shorter. The next thing I know, a week has passed and I don’t know what happened. My wife and I used to have different schedules, and I’d only get to see her on the weekends because I’d come home late at night. Now we all get to spend more time together. Our daughter is in school. She’s a graduate student at Maryland in architecture, and she’s home. I have Zoom calls with friends. I played chess all my life, and now I play with a friend in Massachusetts a couple times a week.

Sometimes I’ll see an old customer on the street in Silver Spring. We loved our customers and knew them all by their names. We had people propose in the restaurant, and they would have kids, and then the kids would propose there. It’s sad when I see people and have to explain that we’re not coming back.

Antonio Vasquez, 66, waiter

I always had two jobs. I worked at Sergio at night and in the daytime I worked for Whole Foods and now I work at the Giant, in the produce department. It wasn’t easy, but I don’t mind the hard work. Sergio was one of the best jobs I ever had in my life. I worked there for 19 years, and a lot of the customers knew me for a long time.

When the shutdown started, I thought it was just for a few weeks, but it goes on. I talked to Sergio on the phone and finally he says, “Antonio, the hotel doesn’t want to open.” When I heard it was closing, it was sad because we didn’t get a chance to say bye. There should have been a party, or something.

I got more hours at the Giant, now I have 48 hours a week. At first, it was terrible. Every single day the store was cleaned out. I don’t know what they do with so much food! And every day we have to fill it up again. It was crazy how people were shopping. Our daughter lives with us, and she’s working too, but I can’t get too worried about getting sick. I’m a person who just goes to work and straight home, and I believe in God to protect me. I pray every day. I had a couple relatives in El Salvador who got sick, but we’re lucky and they’re okay now.

I miss the job at Sergio. The people were good. I liked trying to make them happy — the customers, sometimes even Sergio. I would say, “How are you, Sergio?” And he would say, “I’m okay.” And I would say, “Why are you complaining?” He would say, “There’s nothing in the books, no reservations!” And I would say, “Ah, you’re open for business. People are coming.” It was always true. I try to be positive.

Jaime Pezo, 64, waiter

I came to the U.S. from Lima, Peru, in 1980, and I worked at the hotel where Sergio was. My friend worked there, and one day he pulled me in and said to Sergio, “You should hire this guy,” and that was it. I worked there until 2018 when I had to have spinal surgery and a knee replacement. It had gotten bad. I couldn’t do the work, and it wasn’t fair to the other waiters, when I was sitting down and they were working. Finally I said, “This isn’t right.”

Now, I’m feeling better, and when I get my vaccine, I’m going back to work. Not at Sergio, of course. Maybe another restaurant, or I’ll drive for Uber. I don’t know. I’ll be 65 in July, but I’m still going to do something else. With the pandemic you have to be careful, so I’m keeping distance and wearing a mask. I try to stay active. My backyard goes to Sligo Creek Park, so I go on walks.

I miss the food. My favorite was the fettuccine frutti di mare. And the homemade tiramisu. Everybody loved it. I miss the people, the customers. You got to meet people from different states and countries, and you have to be a little like a psychologist — ask people questions, listen to their troubles. Some of them liked specific tables. It didn’t feel like work. Of course, sometimes in rush hour, you’re running around, but then there were times when you could sit with your customers, talk to them.

Angela Majera Alemán and Erich Alemán in Guatemala City, where Angela is from. (Erich Alemán)

Erich Alemán, 41, cook

I’ve lived in the United States for about 14 years. I worked as a janitor. I worked on a roofing crew. I worked grilling chickens. It was a blessing when 10 years ago I arrived at the doorstep of Sergio’s restaurant. A friend told me Sergio needed a dishwasher that day. “Was I free?” I said, “Okay, let’s go.”

I washed dishes for two, three hours. That’s how it started. Then I did food prep, and then I became chef. My specialties were always the chicken raviolis, the shrimp raviolis and asparagus raviolis. They were delicious. It was just me and my wife, Angela, doing the cooking. We did everything, including the desserts.

Sergio wasn’t so much my boss, but like a father to me. Once I needed to go back to El Salvador. My grandmother was sick. Sergio told me, “Take all the time you need. We’ll be waiting for you.” When I returned to the restaurant, he said, “Welcome! You’re back in your home.”

The 13th of March was so difficult. Sergio said, “Let’s wait until this passes.” Days passed. Months. Sergio held onto the dream that we’d reopen. He’d say we’d come back in August. Then it was September. We hoped we’d go back to work in October. I remember so well when Sergio told me, “I’m so sorry, it pains my soul to say this, but the restaurant is going to close.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “It can’t go on.”

My life was changing radically, having worked for so many years and then not being able to work. We sold a rental property we owned so we could keep going. You have no idea the pain I felt when we were signing those papers.

I’m going to enjoy myself for a while now, spending time with my family in El Salvador. My dream is to return. To open a little business. A little restaurant. Cooking is our passion. It’s our life.

Angela Majera Alemán, 51, cook

I met my husband at a bus stop in Silver Spring. It was 2009. He worked at Sergio’s. I was cooking at the Golden Flame. It was a Greek restaurant. At first we were just friends. But after a while, thank the Lord, we got to know each other much better.

I went to work at Sergio’s with Erich. That was 2010. Sometimes you’re offered more money at one place than the other. You make the change.

Sergio had his regulars. He was always taking care of them. They came. And they came. And they came. I liked being in the kitchen. You always feel good when the waiters tell you that the customers are happy. The customers liked the frutti di mare, the grilled salmon, the salmon with cream sauce. But I didn’t have a preference. I prepared them all.

The last day that we were working — when they gave the closing order — that day, Sergio told us, “I’m sorry you have to go home. But I will call when we reopen.” With time, he decided that he was going to permanently close.

For me, there was a feeling of sadness. So many years working in the same place. I’d adapted to the place. I’d adapted to the type of people there. But what are you going to do? These are things that are decided by God. When we return, God willing, we’ll work for ourselves. That is the plan we have. But only God knows what will happen.

More from Voraciously:

Chef, interrupted: James Beard ‘rising stars’ face an industry in turmoil

The pandemic crashed the party for caterers, who are struggling even more than restaurants to pivot

Laid-off restaurant workers face uncertain futures with looming rent and plenty of worry

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