JoAnna Filomena Chiacchieri can reel off the reasons her basement Italian restaurant in Georgetown has lasted — thrived, even — for 36 years in a famously fickle industry.
One of them is the way her dining room makes customers feel. “When people are seated,” says the restaurateur, 82, “we give them something to look at.”
Talk about an understatement! No other restaurant in town addresses holidays and special occasions to the extent Filomena does, which is to say December looked as if Santa Claus colluded with Jack Frost to cover every inch of space with red garlands, silver tinsel, life-size plastic reindeer and a fake pine tree so big it displaced four tables. (By the time you read this, the restaurant will be awash in red hearts and white doves for Valentine’s Day.) No matter the season, the dim lighting in the dining room manages to shave several years off your face.
Filomena is like so many other D.C. monuments: a site we might pass as we go on with our lives but often don’t visit unless out-of-town friends or family suggest it. Before I returned multiple times recently, I couldn’t recall the last meal I had at Filomena. The Reagan era, maybe?
Not that the restaurant needs any love from a food critic. Over the years, a parade of boldfaced names — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have descended the stairs to feast on soft meatballs served with tangy-sweet Sunday sauce and to keep the brand in the news. Maya Angelou, a regular at Christmas and Easter, was fan enough to write a poem for the place. Most recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Denzel Washington dropped by. (VIPs often find themselves in a faux kitchen outfitted to look like the one Chiacchieri knew in her youth, dressed with her family’s cooking utensils, glass chandelier and a table that comfortably seats 10.) Filomena shares a trait with such hot spots as Le Diplomate and Old Ebbitt Grill: Good luck getting in sans reservation.
It’s easy to be all-consumed by the decor, starting with the in-house pasta makers that occasionally work in the front window. Pull your eyes away, though, and you discover another reason for Filomena’s success. The portion sizes are reminiscent of the servings the owner says she grew up on in her native Ohio and later, New York and Washington. “People worked harder in those days,” she says. Thus the fried calamari, tender and crisp, glides to the table as if on a barge, and the soup of the day (lentil is especially soothing) could fill a tureen. Two arancini are snack enough for four. Go easy on the housemade focaccia and basil dip, in other words.
The portions require me to come up with fresh ways to describe “big.” Here goes. Veal chop pounded to the size of a steering wheel and paved with tomato sauce and mozzarella, obscuring its plate, should come with goggles, or maybe a disclaimer: “Not responsible for the bone protruding from the entree,” like a tree branch. Both the eggplant Parmesan and two-toned, six-layer (count ’em!) lasagna Bolognese are the size of bricks, and they smack of home cooking. Eyes pop again when the mixed seafood pasta docks, requiring a wide berth on our doily-dressed table. To its credit, the calamari, shrimp and mussels therein are cooked as you’d want them to be. My point: Filomena isn’t Olive Garden.
This is not how most Italians in Italy eat, but rather, the way a lot of Americans seem to enjoy Italian food on this side of the pond. Sauce isn’t doled out by the spoonfuls, but by the cupfuls. Linguine Cardinale, among Filomena’s richest plates, brings together bolts of linguine, lobster and a cream sauce that President Clinton ate in the company of German chancellor Helmut Kohl. I can share 42’s enthusiasm for the al dente pasta, tender seafood and maritime flavors of the sauce — if only for a few twirls of my fork. The signature sticks not only to your ribs, but to plenty of other body parts.
Chiacchieri figures half the dishes on the menu were there from the start in 1983. Any changes have typically been met with such resistance, Filomena has been obliged to restore things the way they were. Regulars interested in a change of pace should consult the specials, the prize of which is a riff on oysters Rockefeller, crisp with toasted bread crumbs and rich with bechamel.
A tray heaped with partially tackled entrees caught my eye when I last put on my stretchy pants to eat here. “Does anyone ever finish their food?” I asked my server. He smiled, nodded and replied, “Sure: One percent.” The owner says she likes sending home leftovers with her clientele. Besides, “Italian food reheats well.” Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d prefer heart-friendlier portions, and lower prices, over doggy bags.
Some servers are chatty, others are more subdued. All are charming in their own way. Honest, too. After ordering for lunch a blimp-size Italian cold cut sandwich, a waiter let me know it was “good,” but that the gold standard could be found at the Italian Store in Arlington. If you’ve ordered both the calamari appetizer and the misto di mare entree, someone will let you know it’s “too much calamari.”
Thanks to a round table and display case in the foyer, patrons get to preview many desserts before ordering them. The expected Italian staples, including a cannoli presented as a high-rise cookie, make an appearance, but the best involve cheesecake. A host of flavors are typically offered. Current splurges include a decadent turtle (with chocolate, caramel and nuts) and autumnal pumpkin. Even if you don’t order dessert, you get a parting gift. Flasks of amaretto and sambuca are dropped off ahead of the check; customers are free to help themselves, just as Chiacchieri’s parents encouraged house guests.
The gesture is grand, but what I really want after dinner is a treadmill.
This sweet slice of old-fashioned hospitality is not without several bumps — sometimes literal ones, as when diners seated near passageways get jostled by streams of human traffic. Steer clear of cavatelli with pesto, a bowl of doughy pasta under a blanket of pale green sauce, a combination that tastes like glue on glue. Unless your idea of a good pie is the office cafeteria, Filomena is also not the place for pizza, or baked ravioli with the texture of a cracker.
Even so, affection for the place is such that it’s not uncommon to hear “Happy Birthday” sung four times in one night.
If she and her staff are doing it right, says Chiacchieri, they’re creating memories for several generations of diners to take away with their leftovers. This much is certain: No one who goes to Filomena is likely to forget it.
Filomena (Good) 1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-338-8800. filomena.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $12 to $18, main courses $27 to $50.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.