Thursday, July 26, 2007

The District has been knocking down its historic restaurants all summer.

Reeves Bakery has sold its last strawberry pie, at least for the time being, and Yenching Palace in Cleveland Park has sold its last Chinese dish to make way for a Walgreens drugstore. Now A.V. Ristorante Italiano, which called itself the city’s first authentic Italian restaurant, is set to close Saturday.

The 58-year-old restaurant, where “jeans at one table and tuxes in another” came for stuffed fried artichokes and white pizza, has been sold to make way for development, said owner Augusto Vasaio II.

“It’s emotional,” said Mr. Vasaio, who has been running the restaurant with his brother, John, since their father — the restaurant’s charismatic founder — died in 1982. “We weren’t looking to close, but we got an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Developer Douglas Jemal, who purchased the space for an undisclosed amount, said he is working on plans for a 500,000-square-foot, mixed-use development of office and retail space at the site. Construction should start in two years.

“I’m happy for them. They reached a point in the family that … they decided they don’t want to be in the restaurant business any longer,” said Mr. Jemal, who says he has eaten at the restaurant hundreds of times.

A.V.’s, as it became known, grew into a legend among local residents, politicians and even movie stars.

The walls of its lobby are lined with autographed photos of actors Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson; politicians Hubert H. Humphrey Jr., Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, Fred Thompson, Strom Thurmond and J. Dennis Hastert; and even a former pope.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a frequent guest. Mr. Nicholson called last week to wish the owners well, Mr. Vasaio said.

Regular patrons such as the McGuirls have been in the restaurant every day this week to get their favorite dishes — including frog legs, soft-shell crabs, eggplant Parmesan and pizza — and to say goodbye to “a member of the family,” Marlene McGuirl said.

She and husband Jim have dined at the first table on the left once or twice a week for 40 years.

They like the homey atmosphere and the food. They’ve come to know the staff, even driving one of the waiters and his wife home from the hospital after she had a baby.

“We know about each other’s lives,” Mr. McGuirl said of the staff. “It’s like eating in your own dining room.”

Ed and Kathy Albetski made their way back this week to A.V.’s — the site of one of their first dates, some of Mr. Albetski’s childhood as well as his bachelor party.

“We have so many memories of this place,” Mr. Albetski said.

Mr. Vasaio attributed the restaurant’s success over the years to his father as well as the food and the family atmosphere.

“My father was an interesting character. … They broke the mold when he died,” he said in his closet-sized office off the main dining room before heading back to the kitchen Monday night. “Many, many customers started coming here when he was here.”

Augusto Vasaio I opened the first authentic Italian restaurant in the District, his son said, and was the first person in America to sell the now famous white pizza.

Renee Levinson, who ordered a last dish of fried zucchini this week, remembered how Mr. Vasaio, the founder, could touch customers “with just a look.”

“He was a force behind the restaurant,” she said.

His son, Mr. Vasaio, said he’s still going to be cooking — just in his own kitchen for now. But he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of opening another A.V. some day.

In fact, he’s hanging on to a few A.V. artifacts — the statue of the leaning tower of Pisa, the phone booth, jukebox and celebrity photos in the lobby — “with anticipation of another place and sentimental value.”

Mr. Vasaio and his restaurant may even end up in Florida. But for now, he said, another A.V. is “just speculation.”

Looking for a piece of A.V.’s that will last longer than a white pizza? The fireplace, the Poseidon fountain on the patio and other goods will go on sale in September at a public auction at the restaurant and online at The marble bar has already been sold.

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