It’s hard to say which is cheesier at the Italian Inn—the mile-high lasagna stuffed with what seems like eight layers of noodles and ricotta or the main dining room itself. The latter is a motley assortment of red vinyl booths and worn captain’s chairs neatly aligned with their tables. A mural of some Venetian waterway is plastered onto one wall; on the opposite, exposed white brick is framed by a pair of Romanesque statues. Clusters of glass grapes hang from the chandelier in the middle of the room. You half expect to hear Joe Pesci in the adjoining bar, screaming, “What do you mean I’m funny?”
Yep, the Italian Inn is my kind of place. It’s what I used to consider a real Italian restaurant when I was a boy in Omaha, Neb. Hell, before Roberto Donna, Peter Pastan, and Joseph Muran de Assereto introduced D.C. to authentic cooking from the peninsula, this is the kind of place that you probably considered a real Italian restaurant, too. The dishes listed under “Italian Specialties” here include such U.S.-incubated staples as fettuccine Alfredo, shrimp scampi, and the classic spaghetti and meatballs.
The Italian Inn opened its doors in Hyattsville in 1961, seven years before de Assereto opened Cantina d’Italia, of which Robert Shoffner wrote in the March 2006 Washingtonian: “By 1974, the preponderance of dishes on Cantina’s menu were from northern regional cuisines, so Cantina d’Italia could claim to be our first authentic northern Italian restaurant.”
Regional Italian restaurants now, of course, dominate the landscape, from chef Enzo Livia’s Il Pizzico in Rockville to Pastan’s Obelisk near Dupont Circle to Donna’s Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City. But Donna, for one, can remember when places like the Italian Inn were the major players, not the marginal red-sauce houses that diners now frequent for a taste of nostalgia. Donna still recalls, in impressive detail, when the owner of Romeo and Juliet on K Street asked him in 1979 to write a traditional Italian menu for the restaurant.
“So I did a menu that included…risotto, tiramisu, polenta, all different kinds of pasta, and none of them included fettuccine. There was no lasagna, and there was no cannelloni, and the people was leaving,” Donna remembers. “They were coming in, sitting down, opening the menu, and saying, ‘Which kind of Italian restaurant is this? This is not Italian food.’”
The owner, Donna says, told him to revert back to Italian-American fare. It would be one of the last few victories for southern Italians who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrated to the United States, discovered a bounty here, and created their own home-grown cuisine.
Back in Italy, Donna says, many of these southern natives were so poor, they would throw a piece of meat into a pot of tomato sauce and cook it for hours, then remove the meat and reserve it for other uses. But when these immigrants arrived in the States, Donna says, things were “much better. They were making money, so they started to throw sausage inside there. They started to put meatballs inside of there. But that dish does not exist really back home.”
If anything, the story of the Italian Inn combines two distinct chapters from America’s dining history. The first, naturally, concerns the southern Italian immigrants who created the red-sauce cuisine that defines the restaurant; the other concerns Greek entrepreneurs who have repeatedly shown a willingness to seek business opportunities beyond their ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.
“Greeks spotted an opening in the Northeastern diner business in the mid-1950s,” writes D.C. food historian Joel Denker in his excellent book, The World on a Plate. “Irish, German, and Jewish owners, whose children had little appetite for the business, were selling out. Greeks began taking their places.”
Three partners, including at least one Greek, launched the Italian Inn in 1961; it was a late entry into the local Italian-American red-sauce scene, which had been around since at least the 1920s. The Gioni family eventually bought the aging restaurant in the early 1990s. The Gionis, despite the sound of their surname, are Greek. They already had a long history in the hotel and restaurant industry—including running Niko’s Place in downtown D.C.—by the time they started working in Hyattsville, says co-owner and manager Mimi Gioni.
Like the Greeks who bought and transformed those old diners in the 1950s, the Gionis have put their own stamp on the Italian Inn. While many of the recipes remain the same from opening day, Mimi Gioni says, many others have been added, including a line of specialty pizzas, a whole section of seafood dishes, and even chicken fingers and such for the kids. But the diner connections are most obvious around the margins of the menu, where you’ll find a Reuben sandwich, a Greek salad, buffalo wings, and liver and onions. It seems that inside the body of this Italian-American restaurant there beats the heart of a Greek diner, looking to appease customers by any means necessary.
During the many times I’ve eaten here, I’ve rarely left unhappy. Sure, I have complaints: The Italian bread tastes more like Wonder Bread, soft, squishy, and bland. The minestrone is a tart liquid bolstered by the unwelcome addition of kidney beans, which gives the soup a slightly chililike flavor. And somebody in the kitchen should learn how to blanch tomatoes before stewing sauces, so you don’t get those little slivers of red skin in your lasagna.
But those are mostly pedantic culinary quibbles. In these days of dying red-sauce houses, I find comfort in the Inn’s towering slab of lasagna, lightly draped with a sauce that’s dark, sweet, spicy, and tart—sometimes all at once. It’s one of the best sauces I’ve ever tasted at an Italian-American restaurant. I frankly wish they’d use it on the otherwise exquisite example of chicken parm, a thinly pounded cutlet that’s entombed in seasoned bread crumbs and drenched in a marinara that smacks of too much oregano. I wouldn’t change a thing, though, about the sweet-and-savory spaghetti with meat sauce or the Godfather specialty pizza, a round with spicy pepperoni, bell peppers, ham, ricotta cheese, and more on a soda bread-like crust that somehow works.
Nor would I change a single thing about Janice, a drawling old-school waitress who brings you missing meatballs without asking, salutes your blunt honesty, and really, really hopes you come back again. You can bet I will. We can’t afford to lose an institution like the Italian Inn.
The Italian Inn, 6221 Annapolis Road, Hyattsville, (301) 772-2100.
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