From Old Ebbitt Grill downtown to The Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant, the District has many historic bars and restaurants. Most, though, are the same in name only. Ebbitt’s Victorian decor harkens back to its 1856 opening, but its menu has been updated since Ulysses S. Grant visited more than a century ago. (It’s also operated at different addresses.) The Raven, open since 1935, once served cheeseburgers but now only offers bags of potato chips. For a real slice of history, there’s one pizza spot to visit: Mario’s Pizza House on 25th Street SE.
Located near the intersection of Minnesota and Pennsylvania avenues SE, Mario’s has been offering the same Sicilian-style pies with housemade Italian sausage and ribeye steak-and-cheese sandwiches since 1936. It’s become a neighborhood institution and its recipes endure despite changes in ownership. Current owner Dan Park learned what to cook from the previous owner, who left a recipe book behind.
Since he took over seven years ago, Park has kept things the same. “I have to,” he says. “I don’t want a different taste. Then [customers will] say, ‘What the heck? It’s not the same as before.’” Park knows Mario’s customers have been eating there for decades and that they’ll continue to do so after he’s gone. The only change he made that he can think of is adding a hand-drawn menu board.
The pizza, which features a thick crust and is served in square slabs instead of traditional slices, is a take on Sicilian-style pizza. Mario’s nestles both the tomato sauce and the toppings underneath the cheese. A one-topping slice costs $1.95 and a whole pie sliced six ways runs $10.91. The most popular topping, according to Park, is the signature Italian sausage. Customers ask him to sell the sausage on its own, but the kitchen is too small to take on additional orders for retail sales. They can’t offer delivery through apps like UberEats or Grubhub for the same reason.
Along with the pizza, Park says the subs remain popular. The steak-and-cheese and sausage-and-cheese are the most popular selections. 6-inch sandwiches go for $6.50 and 12-inch sandwiches go for $12.25.
Previous coverage of Mario’s states that the restaurant’s oven dates back to 1935 and that the recipes are passed on via contract. Park can’t confirm those details, but finds it unlikely that the oven hasn’t been replaced in 85 years. As for the recipes, Park says they endure by demand since Mario’s is a neighborhood staple.
Inside there are about two dozen pictures of past regulars. A few were taken outside the restaurant but many appear to originate from school picture days. Park points to these to illustrate what Mario’s means to its customers. “Most customers [are] fourth or fifth generation,” he says. “Some people know better than me. The longer they come here, they know better than me what the taste is like.”
Native Washingtonian and neighborhood resident Terry Brown says that’s part of the appeal for him. “Looks like a hole in the wall,” he says, “but it’s good. I remember Mario’s pizza when I was a kid. It was great and it’s the same taste I remember.” Brown’s wife, who grew up near Historic Anacostia, remembers going there in high school. “It’s a tradition,” she says. “It’s a neighborhood icon, meaning that people who no longer live in the neighborhood still go to Mario’s for the pizza.”
Park confirms that, saying that in addition to customers coming from Northwest D.C. or Upper Marlboro, people stop in to visit when they’re in town from places as far flung as California. “They come from everywhere because they have a memory [from] when they were young,” he says.
Customers have pressed Park to open another Mario’s location in Prince George’s County, but at 69, he says he’s too old to swing it. He gives himself a reprieve by closing on Sundays and closing throughout the week at 7:30 p.m. “I’m tired,” Park says. “I need rest too.”
Mario’s used to be open later, but Park scaled back the hours during the pandemic. They did a steady business during the pandemic, especially because so many other restaurants were closed. But Park doesn’t see himself extending the hours anytime soon. Earning that extra revenue from Sundays and late-night sales, he says, is the job of a younger owner whom he hopes to find soon.
Park, who is originally from Korea, was working with a Korean broker to sell Mario’s before the pandemic, but wasn’t satisfied with any of the prospective buyers. He feared they didn’t have the appropriate understanding of the business and what Mario’s means locally. He put the search on pause but says he will start up again in the near future. His goal? Find someone from the neighborhood who understands not just the business, but the essence of Mario’s itself.
He worries his English will be an impediment to finding a buyer, but, when he does sell, he plans to teach the new owner everything he knows and pass on the same recipe book he was given. “The former owner taught [me],” he says. “So, later, when I sell, I’m going to tell them the recipe.”
Mario’s Pizza House, 1401 25th St. SE; (202)584-5157