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Mario’s Pizza House opened on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington in 1958. Willie “Lefty” Lindsay’s been behind the counter for 33 years, working the grill for most of them, and Joe Williams, the restaurant’s day manager and pizza specialist, was already a veteran when Lefty arrived. Joe figures he’s been at the place for about 36 years, “but, to be honest, I quit counting at 30.”
Joe: I remember when I got hired, the owner told me, “Joe, I know you’re young and you’re not going to want to work on the weekend. So I’d like you to start Monday morning.” So we agreed on that. And then he said, “I tell you what: To make sure you show up, hold up a minute.” He reached into his pocket and handed me a 20-dollar bill.
Lefty: I came here in ’64. I left in ’66. I ran a pool room in Alexandria for two years. I came back in ’68, and I been here ever since.
The restaurant was opened by Norma and Howard Levine with a man named Mario, who died long before his namesake became an institution. It’s now owned by the Levines’ son, Alan, and his wife, Pam Levine. Howard Levine died in the ’80s, his wife in ’91. Norma Levine, who was known as “Mrs. Mario” and instituted a profit-sharing program for her employees, is beloved by the people who worked for her.
Joe: Before she died, [Norma Levine] had a lawyer come down to make sure we got what we had coming to us. I don’t know if she feared that we wouldn’t get it later on or what, but she looked out for us before she left….I really think the guys have stayed so long because they were treated right. Mrs. Mario was the type of lady that, if you had any kind of problems, she would tell you that you could come by the house, and we’d sit around and talk about it. If you worked hard or performed good, every year, she would give you nice Christmas bonuses and things like that.
Lefty: Mrs. Mario was a beautiful lady.
Mario’s, which, according to Joe, originally looked like “a kind of garage,” is twice as big today as it was when it opened, and the miniature-golf course that used to sit adjacent to it has been supplanted by a motel. The restaurant is still pretty small—basically just a counter with some picnic tables outside. Steak-and-cheese sandwiches are its biggest seller, followed by pizza slices. Joe likes to quote Howard Levine’s motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The hoagie buns, the fresh-sliced sirloin steak, the house-made meatballs, dough, and sausage—none have changed an iota since opening day.
Joe: We have about 12 different spices that go in that sauce. I’m not knocking nobody else, but I know guys that have worked for Pizza Hut and all those places. A lot of them say they make their own sauce, but I don’t believe it. You pull that cheese back off that pizza, and you’ll just see plain crushed tomatoes. You pull the cheese back on our pizza, and you’ll see different little spices on there: oregano. Parsley flakes. Sweet basil. You see what I mean? When we’re cooking our sauce, you can smell it in the air. [He sniffs the air and smiles.] That’s right. “Oh my God, what is that? Mario’s pizza sauce!”
Lefty: In this area, people eat steak-and-cheese like we fix it here, with the mayonnaise, mustard, onions, lettuce, pickle. You go to Philly, you get steak and cheese, bread, maybe onion. Nothing else. Otherwise, there’s no difference.
Joe: We make [the pizza dough] fresh in the back. That dough’s got approximately 20 to 30 minutes before it rises up. You cannot make that dough and use it right away. It’d be flat. It’d be like drinking a flat beer. That’s what that dough would be like.
Lefty: We make our steak-and-cheese with grilled onions and green pepper. People come and say, “That ain’t the way you make a Philly steak-and-cheese.” I say, “Come on, what you want?” And they say, “Just steak and cheese and bread.” I say, “All right, why didn’t you tell me that?”
Joe: [People from Philly] come in here. They be talking about their steak-and-cheese, but Lefty keeps them in line. Lefty used to be up in Philly. He knows.
Over the years, Mario’s has seen more than its share of repeat customers.
Joe: [One regular] used to come in and just stand up against the wall. Wouldn’t say anything, and Lefty automatically knew what he wanted. He’d get a ham-steak-and-cheese every day for about nine years. And a big Coke. I never knew what happened to that guy. He never talked. Every now and then we’ll say, “I wonder what happened to old John.”
Lefty: Joe’s working pizza, and I take care of the grill. Fifty percent of my customers, I know ’em. Some of them I don’t even ask what they’re gonna have. I just fix it, they take it, and they leave.
Mario’s slices are square-cut from rectangular baking pans, and the sausage ones are particularly striking: A single, nearly hamburger-sized patty of spiced pork sits atop the cheese.
Joe: We make [the sausage] from the pork shoulder. We trim it down. Dice it up. Run it through a grinder. Put it in a big pan. Spice it up….Years ago, we used to run it through a casing and make links to sell. But as years went by, business got so damn good with that sausage, people would buy it before we had a chance to put it in the casings. So my boss said, “To hell with the casings.”
There are two places to order at Mario’s. Slices are to the right, sandwiches to the left. Joe can pre-make a certain amount of pizza in anticipation of the lunch rush, whereas Lefty, as the grill man, works strictly on the fly. Lefty can fry up to 15 sandwiches at once (the nickname comes from his pool-shooting days; he works the spatula with his right hand), and the way that the grill is situated forces him to take many orders with his back to customers.
Joe: [Lefty] never writes down anything. A lot of people come in here, and he can just look at them, and he’ll put the food on the grill and have it almost cooked when they come through the door. He’s good.
Lefty: Everybody wonders how I do it. I take the order, but gradually, I look around and see everybody in line. And I can put every face with every sandwich that they order. Steak-and-cheese. Ham-steak-and-cheese. Steak-and-cheese. Ham-steak-and-egg. You can put it in your head, but you also have to turn around and put the sandwich with the face.
Joe: If you can get a customer in and out within at least about eight minutes, he’s gonna come back….He was satisfied. He had time to eat, relax, and smoke a cigarette. So he’s gonna go back to the office and tell his buddies. They say, “Where did you eat at today?” He says, “Shit, I ate down at Mario’s. Damn, that was good. Those guys can really turn ’em out!”
Lefty: That’s the key to this place. You can’t waste a lot of time asking people. Sometimes during lunch, we’re full. The old customers know the routine. But the new guy’s standing there: I say, “Next,” and he doesn’t say anything. He tells me, “Well, you didn’t say anything.” I say, “I said next.”
Joe: [Lefty] comes in real early, like 7 or 8. His wife works downtown, and he has to leave with her. Poor fella. He’ll be in the back sleeping sometimes when I get here.
Lefty: Not everybody can do it. But I can do it.
Mario’s Pizza House, 3322 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 525-7927.
Many readers have opinions as to which is the best restaurant in Adams Morgan; one even thinks he knows the best table. “It’s at the Little Fountain Cafe,” he says. “It’s outside and a little cramped and it only fits two people, three max.” The table sits just outside the basement restaurant’s front, wedged into a space just below the sidewalk. It’s a good place to spy on walk-by traffic, although catching a view requires looking up. The restaurant’s food skews French, which suits the inside dining room’s bistro-esque aura. Boneless chicken mingles with morels under a pastry lid in a bath of rich, earthy sauce. It’s the kind of thing that begs to be enjoyed fireside, but when that’s an impossibility, the best seat in the neighborhood does just fine.
Little Fountain Cafe, 2339 18th St. NW, (202) 462-8100. —Brett Anderson
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