In a news cycle swirling with notices of restaurant closures, Ristorante i Ricchi reminds us that longevity is possible in the D.C. dining scene. The Italian restaurant specializing in Tuscan cuisine opened its doors on 19th St. NW on Jan. 11, 1989. That’s the year the Berlin Wall fell. Paula Abdul was singing “Straight Up,” and Weekend at Bernie’s was on the big screen.
Chef and owner Christianne Ricchi moved from Italy to the U.S. with her then-partner Francesco Ricchi to open Ristorante i Ricchi off Dupont Circle. A few years later, the pair split. Christianne went on running Ristorante i Ricchi and Francesco set off on his own. He now operates CESCO Osteria in Bethesda.
Just today, Christianne learned the D.C. Council would be honoring Ristorante i Ricchi with a special proclamation for being a bright spot in the D.C. hospitality industry for so long. City Paper asked Christianne about what it takes to make a restaurant last.
When you and Francesco came to the U.S. from Tuscany to open a restaurant, why did you choose D.C.?
In the mid 1980’s, it was brought to our attention that Americans were just beginning to discover authentic Italian cuisine. Up until then, what Americans thought was Italian was an American-Italian immigrant cuisine—veal Parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza—not the way the modern day Italians really eat. I was born in New York of Italian heritage. I knew how to make my grandma’s Sunday gravy. But then I went to Tuscany. It was a revelation to me what authentic Italian cuisine was like. Francesco and I had operated this little family run business for about 17 or 18 years ourselves. We decided we wanted to do something on our own. We looked in Manhattan, but thought that was too big of a difference from where we were living in Tuscany. We came to Washington and liked that it was an international city with a highly educated clientele, and a very livable city. We could have a restaurant downtown and live in Fairfax County. In those days it really was only 15 minutes from Vienna or McLean into town.
How would you describe D.C.’s dining scene in 1989?
There was Galileo and Vinzenzo, but French restaurants were the big thing. The restaurant scene was very meager. It was a shadow of what it is today. It was French restaurants and American-type restaurants. There was very little competition.
Have any dishes remained on your menu the entire 30 years?
Many of the dishes we have on our menu today are the same dishes we served in our little restaurant outside of Florence. Those are the same dishes Tuscans are eating today. We have a dish called Rigatoni Strascicate—a pasta made with a very hearty Tuscan meat sauce that cooks on the top of the stove for 12 hours. We have our basic Tuscan menu, but then of course we add seasonal specials.
After you and Francesco parted ways, you became a solo female restaurateur. Did you face any barriers back in the day?
Yes, it was very different times. Things really have changed for the better for women in business. In restaurants, you’re beginning to see more and more women chefs in kitchens, but woman restaurateurs are still not as frequent as you might think. I can’t tell you how many times people would come in and say, ‘You’re not the owner, can I speak to your father or husband?’ A lot of people who worked in our industry were men from other cultures who many times had a problem taking direction from a woman. That has changed. It might be a cultural thing, but it might also be that I’m 30 years older so they look at me as a mother figure.
How have you adapted to D.C.’s evolving dining scene?
I had to take a long, hard look about six years ago to decide how to set ourselves apart from other restaurants. The thing that sets us apart is that it’s a female-owned and operated business. I decided I would focus on creating a community for women. We call it ‘i Ricchi’s Women’s Club.’ The only thing you have to do to join is give us your email address. Members get a 50 percent discount on Tuesdays during lunch and dinner. They can come to i Ricchi and do business, network, or relax and have a good time with girlfriends and only pay 50 percent.
You’ve operated through five presidential administrations. Is there a difference in dining when a Republican versus a Democrat is in the white house?
I don’t think it’s a difference between Republican and Democrat. Each president has had their own style. When we first opened it was George H.W. Bush. About a month after he was inaugurated, he came here to eat with Barbara Bush to celebrate his friend’s birthday. Up until that time, presidents almost never went out to restaurants. When Bush went out to a restaurant it made international news. We made the front page of Florence’s newspaper in Italy. That really launched us, but we were known as ‘the place that Bush went to eat.’ Then Clinton was elected and I started to get really nervous—we’re known as a Republican restaurant and now nobody is going to come. But two members of Clinton’s transition committee began coming to the restaurant. Clinton was viewed as a very young president. A lot of people who worked for him were young and liked to go out. A lot of his people started coming to eat here. Then I relaxed. I realized I’m in a political city where I have to try and keep my personal political views under wraps and focus on hospitality and welcoming everyone.
What was a difficult moment you’ve persevered through?
We were doing really well and then 9/11 hit. Our sales dropped 60 percent overnight. People stopped traveling. That’s when I became more politically active. I went to speak in front of Congress to try to give the restaurant community a hand. It was very difficult. That’s when Restaurant Week started. In November , I got a call from Alan Stillman who owned Smith & Wollensky. He called me and said, ‘In New York we’ve done Restaurant Week for a while. We’re not doing any business at Smith & Wollensky. Do you think you could get a group of restaurateurs together and I’ll send down my marketing and PR people to see if we can start a Restaurant Week in D.C.?’ January 2002 was the first Restaurant Week. There were just a handful of us who banded together.
What does it feel like to be celebrating such longevity at a time when many restaurants are announcing closures? Secrets to success … spill em!
I don’t feel like I can sit back and pat myself on the back and revel in success because this business is tough. Everyday you’re fighting. You’re fighting for market share, fighting to remain relevant, fighting for a piece of the customer base. I, together with Rick Stewart who is my director of operations, we’re very tenacious and we’re in it for the long haul.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Ristorante i Ricchi is hosting a communal feast of rustic Italian country cooking on Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. A $165 ticket includes drinks, a six-course menu, tax, and tip.
Ristorante i Ricchi; 1220 19th St. NW; (202) 835-0459; iricchidc.com
The Q&A interview was edited for length and clarity.