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Come early November, when Mixtec celebrates its 29th28th anniversary in Adams Morgan, owner Pepe Montesinos plans to officially unveil the long-awaited deli/grocery/take-out shop next to his landmark Mexican restaurant. The take-away menu will include, interestingly enough, pizza and pastas. Don’t ask Montesinos why—unless you have an hour to hear his life story.
Allow me to save you the time: The Oaxacan native immigrated to the United States in 1965, with the grand idea that he would enroll at the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. That dream proved elusive for a Mexican with limited connections. Instead, Montesinos started working as a waiter at the now-shuttered A.V. Ristorante Italiano in 1970 while studying business and economics at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. Montesinos considered the late Augusto Vasaio, who founded A.V. in 1949, his mentor. “To me, AV. was one of the most important people in my life,” he says.
It was at A.V. that Montesinos realized the culinary connections between his native country and Italy. (Got another hour to spare? Ask Montesinos about the history of tomatoes.) It was then that Montesinos also realized he wanted a place of his own. “Every homework that I had [in college], I always wrote about the restaurant that I had in my mind,” Montesinos remembers.
His homework became reality in 1978, when Montesinos opened Enriqueta’s on M Street NW in Georgetown. It was an immediate hit in a town that had choked down one too many enchiladas smothered in Velveeta. “Put aside any Tex-Mex preconceptions. Enriqueta’s is an authentic Mexican restaurant with a menu listing a variety of styles of cooking, tastes and textures, only a few of them hot,” Phyllis Richman wrote in her 1979 Washington Post Dining Guide. “Enriqueta’s will teach you something you are glad to know about Mexican food.”
Two years later, in 1980, Montesinos opened Mixtec, then only a grocery store designed to help the budding restaurateur import much-needed ingredients from Mexico. The grocery morphed into a taqueria in 1982, which became a problem when Montesinos decided to open a second Enriqueta’s just a few doors down on Columbia Road. Mixtec and Enriqueta’s ended up competing against each other for D.C.’s limited Mexican dining dollar, since locals apparently couldn’t distinguish between a taqueria and the more fully developed menu at Enriqueta’s. In the mid-1980s, Montesinos—and here’s the important part, finally—transformed the second Enriqueta’s into Trattoria Garibaldi, a short-lived Italian spot.
Montesinos, in other words, is not just adding Italian food to his take-out operation for the hell of it. He has experience with the cuisine, has affection for it, and even feels a connection between his mother’s cooking back in Oaxaca and the stuff turned out in rustic Italian kitchens.
The line of pizzas and pastas at the new take-out shop will be Montesinos’ own attempt to keep the spirit of A.V. alive—both the restaurant and his old friend. Montesinos has even hired Virginia Williams, a cook at A.V. for 40 years, to make his pies and pastas, which will, of course, include that mouthwatering white pizza that you just had to order every time you stepped foot into A.V.’s. But Montesinos has also developed a few of his own pies, which could make you forget all about A.V.’s most famous round. Personally, I’m looking forward to a pair of Montesinos’ creations: one pie with tomatillos and roasted pork and another with Oaxacan mole.
Montesinos says he might also sell meatloaf and some traditional sandwiches. It may sound like yet another oddball addition to his Mexican operation, but it all makes sense to Montesinos, a man with his feet planted in three distinct cultures: his native Mexico, his adapted America, and the Southern Italy of his old mentor. “Eventually, we’ll do the three cuisines,” Montesinos promises, “the Mexican, the American, and the Italian concept.”