- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

These poor rugs never stood a chance.The long corridor that links the lobby, dining room and kitchen inside the Galileo restaurant in downtown Washington is lined with the finest Oriental floor coverings, but they look a little faded, even a little frayed.

No one has done more to wear them out than Mario Mellusi.

The restaurant’s maitre d’ races up and down the hall all day long, zigging and zagging, dodging and weaving through the steady stream of waiters, busboys, bartenders and patrons.

“That’s just the restaurant business,” Mr. Mellusi said. “There is a lot of walking. Sometimes you have to be five different people in two minutes.”

Mr. Mellusi’s slender frame is what most customers first see when they pass through the front doors of Galileo, 1110 21st St. NW, the celebrated Italian restaurant that hosts the city’s top politicians, executives and celebrities. But he does more than greet and seat Galileo’s powerful patrons.

Mr. Mellusi checks reservations, supervises waiters, and makes sure the lighting and the music are just right. He works a 15-hour day, five days a week.

Roberto Donna, Galileo’s famed chef and owner, runs the kitchen. The rest of the place? It belongs to Mr. Mellusi.

“The environment, the people. You meet all kinds of people. You make them feel good, they make you feel good. Those are the things that make me love this work,” he said.

Mr. Mellusi has worked in the restaurant business his entire life.

He was born and raised on Isola D’Ischia, or the “Island of Dreams,” the largest island in the Gulf of Naples, vividly captured on celluloid as the setting of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Mr. Mellusi’s father is a restaurateur, and young Mario worked in the family business as a boy. When Italy’s tourist season ended each year, Mr. Mellusi went off to some other country — England, France, Switzerland — to work in bars and restaurants.

He learned to speak five languages — Italian, English, French, German and Spanish — and eventually came to the United States, where he found work in the District’s fanciest restaurants. He joined Galileo six years ago.

Ask any of his co-workers or his favorite customers, and they will tell you: Mr. Mellusi is the man.

He is always busy, but never frantic, the essence of cool. His tailored suits, perfectly trimmed goatee and bright smile make him the ideal face for a restaurant whose regular customers include former President Bill Clinton and Bono.

“Everyone loves Mario,” said Alysa Lebeau, Galileo’s marketing director.

The lunch rush has no sooner ended on a recent Wednesday when Mr. Mellusi and company begin preparing for the dinner crowd.

At 4:30 p.m., he conducts his daily staff meeting. Like everything he does, it is a meeting in motion.

Mr. Mellusi sweeps from room to room, instructing the staffers on how things should be arranged.

Tables that usually seat four are turned into tables for six. Silverware is polished. Glasses are held up to the light to ensure there are no spots. Carpets are vacuumed. Waiters stand in front of the grand mirror in the hall and tie their neckties.

Mr. Mellusi oversees it all.

“I have a great crew. They are a young crew, but good,” he says, his accent pronounced.

Forget about keeping up with Mr. Mellusi while he makes his rounds. It is impossible.

He is explaining a pricing change to the waiters in the dining room one minute, and the next, he is taking a reservation on a telephone in the lobby. And then — whoosh — he’s gone again.

His name is in constant refrain among his co-workers.

“Mario, can you help me with this?”

“Mr. Mario, phone call for you.”

“Mario, one more thing.”

At about 5:30 p.m., the first dinner customers start rolling in.

“Good evening, sir, may I help you?” Mr. Mellusi asks the young executive who has arrived to meet a date in the bar.

“It’s so good to see you again,” he tells the elderly couple, two of his familiar customers.

This is the part of the job — the glad-handing, the schmoozing, the comforting — that Mr. Mellusi enjoys most.

Need a table at the last minute? Give Mario a call and he will do his best to squeeze you in — especially if you’re a regular.

Don’t like the way the kitchen prepares one of its famous pasta dishes? Just tell Mario. He will make sure the chef prepares it to your liking.

“That’s how you make people feel better. I try to be my customers’ friend,” he said.

When Mr. Mellusi isn’t working, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son, who is 21/2. The family lives on Capitol Hill. Even though he has grown up around the finest Italian food, Mr. Mellusi occasionally treats his son to a McDonald’s hamburger.

By 6 p.m., Galileo’s dinner crowd is picking up. It probably will be another six hours or so before Mr. Mellusi is ready to call it a day, but you would never know it.

“This is when the show really starts,” he says as he dashes off to greet another customer.

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