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Jennifer Hentz’s roommate was waiting for her at Pasta Mia when she arrived for dinner on a Thursday in late June. It was early, says Hentz, about 6:30, and the third member of their party hadn’t yet shown.
Pasta Mia is a sliver of a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and often has a line snaking out onto the sidewalk. Thursday night is among the restaurant’s busiest, and its staff is strict about its policy of not seating parties until all members arrive. Its fiery, Rome-born chef/owner, Roberto Broglia, prepares every dish to order, and he says that his kitchen’s small size keeps him from hiring extra cooking help. Given the quality of Broglia’s simple, pasta-with-sauce cuisine, Pasta Mia’s prices are mercifully cheap—no entree costs more than $10. So waits can be long even after you’ve gotten a seat. “Once in a while people complain,” muses the chef. “We tell them to leave if they don’t want to wait.”
Nonetheless, Hentz, an attorney, says that the restaurant wasn’t yet crowded when she entered it to meet her friends. “When I got there, I talked to the hostess and said, ‘Look, two of the three of us are here. We want to have some drinks. We want to have some appetizers. Our third party will be here.’”
The two women were seated at a pair of pushed-together, two-person tables in the small, slightly elevated portion of the dining room. As the friends enjoyed their starters and drinks, the restaurant started to fill up, causing alarm among the staff that the pair was occupying a table equipped to seat four. “The waitress kept coming over saying, you know, ‘Where’s your third?’” explains Hentz. “We’re like, ‘Look, she’s coming. Relax.’”
After somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, Hentz’s late friend was still a no-show, and the waitress asked her party to move to a smaller table. Hentz says that she replied “very politely, ‘No, I’m sorry, there’s not enough room at that table for the third. We’re not going to move.’” The waitress said that remaining where they were wasn’t an option. Hentz asked to speak to the manager, even though the waitress insisted that the manager would tell her the exact same thing. Hentz said, “That’s fine. Let her tell me.”
Hentz then claims that Pasta Mia’s manager, Broglia’s wife, approached their table “screaming” about how it wasn’t fair that they should occupy such a large table, at which point Hentz says that she decided to cut her losses and asked for the check. Soon thereafter, according to Hentz, Broglia came “storming out of the kitchen…screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ And of course everyone at the restaurant, because it’s so small, turns around and starts staring at us. Which was just not lovely.”
Broglia doesn’t dispute that he kicked the women out. When Hentz was asked to move, he says, there was a party of four waiting to be seated, and his staff had already started to turn customers away for lack of space. A few weeks after the occurrence, the chef stands in his empty, closed restaurant and points to the two tables where the offending diners were sitting. “Can you believe it?” he shouts, shaking his head at their arrogance.
Broglia and Hentz disagree on the events that followed the chef’s verbal outburst. According to Hentz, Broglia took a beer from her hand just as she was about to take a sip of it and, after placing his hand under her elbow, proceeded to “basically lift me up from the table.” Hentz says that the chef screamed through the entire
incident and that the physical contact continued all the way to the exit, where she claims Broglia “literally shoved me out the door.”
Broglia denies touching Hentz except to grab the beer from her, which he figures was his right given that he didn’t make the party pay its bill. But no one disputes what happened in the wake of the argument: The police arrived to take Broglia to jail, where he says he stayed for 15 hours, resulting in a night of lost business, because he employs no other chefs who can do his job. The chef bristles as he recounts his clash with the cops. “‘We have a witness you assaulted her,’” Broglia says, recalling what he was told by one of the arresting officers. “I said, ‘I didn’t assault nobody.’ [The officer] said, ‘You [snatched] a beer from her.’ I said, ‘This is not an assault.’ I mean, she didn’t pay for it. This is my place.
I pay the rent! I pay the tax! I pay everything!”
Broglia says that he has witnesses who will corroborate his story, although in a lengthy, anonymous voice-mail message left at the Washington City Paper the day after the incident, a diner who was present told his version of the event, which hewed closely to Hentz’s. The arrest record states that the chef was arrested for “simple assault.”
Broglia is a 60-ish, medium-built man with thinning, graying hair, and even though he’s been in the States since the ’70s, there’s still plenty of Rome left in his singsongy speech. He boasts of his food’s quality—his peppers aren’t canned, but roasted in house, and he buys his pasta freshly made—and he clearly sees his customers as his guests. Of diners who complain of long waits, the chef sighs, “People not happy, what do you want me to do? I only got two hands. That’s the way I cook.”
Pasta Mia is understandably popular. Few restaurants in the city offer such good, honest food at such reasonable prices. But the waits can be unnerving. During my most recent visit, my friend and I waited 45 minutes for salads, at which point we told our waiter to forget about them and just bring the entrees, which took another half-hour. The people at the table next to us sympathized. One advised, “Never come here if you’re hungry or in a hurry.” His friend added, “Or take up quilting.”
When Katherine Hemmer visited the restaurant with her girlfriend last year, her experience was similar—to a point. “By the time we had gotten our salads,” she recalls, “people who came in after us were already eating their meals. So we just decided that, you know, we’d pay for our salads and head home.”
Hemmer went to find her waitress, who happened to be standing near the kitchen, and asked for her check. She says that Broglia overheard her request and piped in, telling her that she could eat at McDonald’s. Hemmer says she told the chef, “Look. You don’t have to be an ass about this. I want to pay up what we owe.”
The “ass” comment apparently didn’t go over too well. According to Hemmer, the chef then “grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘You goddamned dyke. Get the fuck out of my restaurant.’ Literally.” Broglia, claims Hemmer, repeated the offensive epithet “the entire time he was pushing and shoving me out of the restaurant. I was literally thrown out of the restaurant.”
Hemmer didn’t end up calling the police; she says she thought about placing a call to the Washington Blade but decided against it, figuring that “you know, maybe my ‘ass’ comment inflamed him.”
Hentz doesn’t intend to let the chef get off so easy. She says that she’s filing a civil suit charging Broglia with assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional stress.
For his part, Broglia says he may sue Hentz—for what, he’s not sure. He believes he was unjustly arrested and ended up losing a night of business as a result. Someone, he intones, should be held accountable.
A few more minutes pass, and talk turns again to customers complaining. Broglia says that in the past, customers “used to come in the kitchen, you know, bothering you. ‘Where’s my food?’ This and that. I mean, come on. I’m cooking. What do you think I’m doing? Scratching my balls? Wait. If you don’t want to wait, leave. You come in here for $6.95 and you complain about, you know, ‘Where’s my food?’” He pauses for a moment and then says, his voice lowered, “That’s where you get upset, too, you know.”
Pasta Mia, 1790 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 328-9114.
Fans of red-sauce Italian cuisine who don’t want to chance the waits-or-worse at Pasta Mia might want to think of reacquainting themselves with the iconic A.V. Ristorante Italia. One reader goes for the “lasagna, Chianti, opera…and the Addams Family atmosphere.” I’m into the pizza—thin, crisp, cooked to a blistery brown, and slicked with some of the sweetest red sauce this side of Baltimore.
A.V. Ristorante Italiano, 607 New York Ave. NW, (202) 737-0550. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.