There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It was the Mount Pleasant riot in 1991 that changed everything, says Roberto Massarin, co-owner of San Marco. The violence occurred about a mile from San Marco’s location at the foot of Adams Morgan’s 18th Street strip. Even so, the tumult scared away the restaurant’s mostly middle-aged client base, he says, forcing him and his partner, chef Pino Mele, to “start again with a new crowd”—one that was young and looking to party. Soon, the two will be starting again with no crowd: Both men turned 65 this year and have decided it’s time to leave the raucous stomping ground behind; they’ll be putting San Marco up for sale at the end of the year. After 18 years in the same location, “it’s time to say enough is enough,” says Massarin.
As proprietor of one of the oldest restaurants in the neighborhood, Massarin blames the boozification of Adams Morgan for the fickleness surrounding San Marco. “A lot of these people, they don’t start with the idea of a restaurant; a lot of these people, they want to become a drinking place,” he says. Take the example of Pharmacy Bar, says Massarin. Here’s a place that in 2005 pleaded to change from a restaurant license to a tavern license because the owner said he couldn’t survive by relying on food sales. “But when you read the menu,” says Massarin, “you would never be able to make it with a menu like that.”
“They start, these people, with false pretenses,” he says.
Strong words, but ones that have been hard-earned during nearly two decades on the corner of 18th Street and Kalorama Road. Massarin and Mele attribute their well of customers—never a gusher but thick with loyal regulars—to two things: consistency and presence. Except for during a brief period in the late ’90s after the duo attempted to sell the place, Mele has been the kitchen’s sole chef. “If you came 19 years ago and you had the risotto, you come back today and it’s the same, because the same guy makes it,” boasts Massarin. He and Mele are both at the restaurant seven days a week, from 9 a.m. until closing. “A lot of people, when they open restaurants, they think they can make a million dollars right away. They start to put managers in here, managers in there. You got to be inside to work in a place. Like I am in the front, Pino is in the back.”
But the hands-on principle takes its toll on a restaurant’s ownership. It’s an approach that lasts only as long as a proprietor’s wind, one that’s become endangered among D.C’s honest-Italian restaurants with the demise of Fio’s in Mount Pleasant, developer Douglas Jemal’s purchase of A.V. Ristorante’s downtown site, and the intermittent closures of Pasta Mia just up the road from San Marco. (Pasta Mia owner Roberto Broglia says he’s already retired and collecting Social Security; he keeps his restaurant open “for fun.” But the fun won’t last forever: “One day, I’ll put the sign up—‘closed’—and that’s it,” says Broglia.)
And with a combined near-century of restaurant work behind them, Mele and Massarin are ready to call it a day. Both have been in the business since their teens; they met while working at Genoa’s Da Giacomo. When its owner headed to D.C. in the early ’80s to open a place on Wisconsin Avenue, the two came along. The eatery, Giacomo, lasted six months, says Massarin. “When we came we didn’t know nothing about America. We made the same type of restaurant we had in Genoa, with the buffet [display] outside, and the health inspector jumped on us right away,” Massarin laughs. More damning, Giacomo’s menu of true-to-the-region dishes proved to be ahead of the stateside curve.
After the restaurant’s failure, Massarin worked at Tiberio on K Street, and Pele cooked for a few Italian restaurants in town. Gradually, the pair learned what locals will and won’t put in their mouths. And the market met them halfway. “The Americans, they catch up fast,” says Massarin. “When we arrived, we used to give away samples of risotto. People wouldn’t touch it. Now, 40 percent of our sales in this restaurant is risotto.”
San Marco’s other authentic standards—grilled cuttlefish, beef carpaccio, and wild boar over house-made tagliatelle—have found appreciative audiences, as well. The devotion is spurred by the fact that Massarin and Mele have managed to keep their ingredients fresh-tasting, their portions large, and, almost miraculously, their prices reasonable. Entrees hover around $15, and enormous starters range from $8 to $9.50. The atmosphere is unfussy and charmingly cluttered with collections of Venetian masks, signed soccer jerseys, and 417 bottles of grappa. A professed collector, Massarin says that he once had a cache of 7,000 airplane bottles and has taped every World Cup game from 1986 on.
It’s hard to imagine how he finds the time for such hobbies when he spends so many hours pounding the carpet at his restaurant. Massarin admits that he’s been stretched thin. Mele plans to move back to his native Sardinia after the sale, but Massarin is committed only to spending more time with his wife. “She’s been putting on the pressure,” says Massarin. “Let’s put it this way: This one is my third wife. You know, when you are in love, they’ll accept anything. After a little while, everybody’s gotta have husband at home….I lost two wives that way. The third one, I said, ‘It is already late in my life; I cannot afford a fourth wife.’”—Anne Marson
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