Roberto Broglia, the owner and lone cook of Adams Morgan’s red-sauce staple Pasta Mia, shuffled silently between the prosciutto slicer and the bubbling pans of sauce. He plopped a few jumbo-sized bowls onto the counter and then rather unceremoniously dumped the contents of a whole pot of pasta into each one.
Next came two fistfuls of grated cheese. Only then did Roberto, 76, ding the bell, summoning his wife to come and claim the dishes, just as she has done for 25 years.
Roberto was also doing what he has always done — generously feeding the good, hungry people of the District more pasta than a single human could ever consume in one sitting.
But the crowds that planted themselves at his tables this week were doing something they hadn’t done in years. They were dining at Pasta Mia.
The self-proclaimed home of Italian cooking and home-away-from-home for a generation of young Washingtonians will close Saturday. Finito. Arrivederci to all that.
And as the news spreads, it is bringing the faithful back to stand in the legendary line , although everyone is a little grayer now, including Antoniette Broglia, 69, Pasta Mia’s matriarch and hostess.
New waves of 20-somethings who have never been are coming, too. Because, as Katherine Stone, 22, explained Thursday night from her position at the end of a lengthy queue, Pasta Mia was “a Washington institution.”
March has blown in a gust of Washington nightlife closings: Bohemian Caverns, the jazz club that bopped on U Street in one form or another for 90 years, will also go silent after this weekend’s performances. The high-design Science Club, which opened a decade ago near Dupont Circle, called it quits this month.
But the end of Pasta Mia is about more than high rent, or even gentrification. It’s about changing tastes.
When Roberto and Antoniette opened their Adams Morgan eatery, in 1991, the city was swimming in meatballs, pizza and joints such as Luigi’s, opened by Italian immigrants just like them. But when they visited San Francisco and dined at a restaurant that served only pasta, they landed upon the concept that would set them apart.
They opened on the Fourth of July. They charged $6.95 for the pasta, and it stayed that way for years. (Now, many bowls are $20.)
The bargains were part of the draw. So were the owners themselves, their slightly gruff approach becoming part of the charm, along with the plastic chairs and the checkered tablecloths.
But Washington’s restaurant boom, and Adams Morgan’s transformation from restaurant-lined streets to nightlife corridor, has cast a shadow over the old-timers. Roberto is ready to go. “What do you want me to do? Die in the restaurant?” he asked the local blog Borderstan.
Now, there is 14th Street, and he knows it. “Le Diplomate!” he scoffed this week. He has been there, and what is it really? “Bouillabaisse,” he said, rolling his eyes.
But it’s difficult to deny that in the face of all the slick newness and “house-made” gibberish, Pasta Mia is showing its age. Half its chipped facade is painted the inviting color of an Army barracks, the other half a canary yellow that shows every bit of grime that ever came its way.
For 25 years, most of the pasta has been poured straight from boxes into the vats of boiling water, and the romaine for the Caesar salad was the pre-chopped, pre-bagged kind. The pesto, at least in these waning days, was scooped from jars conspicuously labeled Kirkland — yes, the Costco house brand.
Dining at Pasta Mia has been like choosing to believe in a magic trick. It is assuring yourself that fresh ropes of pasta were drying somewhere in the back, and that a kitchen full of Italians was tossing your gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, when in fact, none of this was happening.
It was just Roberto, his saucepans and his methodical work.
The boxed pasta, the pre-made tiramisu — “That’s the way it’s always been,” confirms Patrick Rice, who waited tables at Pasta Mia as a high-schooler nearly a decade ago and joined the line one night this week to pay his respects. The magic, he said, is Antoniette, “taking care of you. It’s her husband, making the food. When I first started working here, people were like, ‘The ravioli is homemade, right?’ I was like, ‘Do you have any idea how long it takes to make ravioli?’ ”
No, it didn’t really matter whether Roberto rolled out the pasta all day. After a couple of hours in line, famished diners would sit down to pasta and practically will it to be delicious.
Pasta Mia almost certainly could not go on. Restaurants now get your phone number and text you when your table is ready. They “plate” your food. They take Visa.
Down 18th Street, there’s a new Italian restaurant. It also serves only pasta. (House-made, naturally.) Diners can even pick their own sauce, not to mention request — the horror! — a gluten-free noodle.
At Pasta Mia, this would all be sacrilege. Eating here has always been like signing a blood pact: You agreed to pay cash. You agreed to order at least $17 worth of food. No sharesies. And you never, ever, requested a substitution.
Well, technically, you could request one, but then you also had to prepare for a withering stare from Antoniette.
And you had to wait in line, a line that, in this last week of service, is seeing more action than it has in years. The queue is beginning at 5 p.m. and has continued, in some cases, until midnight. For hours, it seems not to budge. But then, neither did the Broglias.
As we plopped down to eat, finally, after three grueling hours, Antoniette greeted us with “Okay.” It was both our welcome and our cue to order. A request for a glass of the house wine prompted the night’s only question: “You over 21?”
Nothing else here was ever as efficient as this exchange.
The orders were always taken with a pen and notepad and then passed directly to Roberto, who, lately, hovers over them, squinting a little longer than he used to.
But few customers seemed to leave without the sense that the meal was the most satisfying they’ve had since, well, they dined at Grandma’s house.