Nicky de Chiara never had any doubts about going into the family business. “My dream always to do what I do,” he says in a voice that still liltingly conveys his native Italian roots.
So at an age when many people are happily basking in their well-earned retirement, the 72-year-old de Chiara, along with local business partners Jimmy Audia and Bill Hicks, has decided that after a lifetime in the restaurant business, he still has many more mouths to feed. De Chiara hopes that his new Italian cantina, Pazzo Pomodoro (Italian for “crazy tomato”), opened in late November in an unassuming strip shopping center in Vienna, will be yet another success in his family’s long tradition of popular eateries.
De Chiara, who lives in Vienna himself, received his early culinary training at the famous Alfredo Restaurant (fettuccine Alfredo, anyone?) in Rome, where he recalls serving that eponymous dish to Elizabeth Taylor, complete with the gold fork and spoon given to her by Douglas Fairbanks. During this time, de Chiara worked alongside his adopted grandfather, the famous Swiss-trained chef Orlando Figini, whom de Chiara calls his greatest influence. Figini went on to become a legendary Los Angeles restaurateur, moving from serving Italian royalty in the 1930s to Hollywood royalty in the 1940s and ’50s. His restaurant, La Rue, was the favorite of many Hollywood stars, including Walt Disney, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Sophia Loren and countless others.
The family tradition continued when de Chiara’s mother, Juliet, and her twin brother, Romeo, opened the longtime Washington, D.C., culinary landmark Romeo & Juliet on K Street, frequented by D.C. power brokers for more than 20 years. Romeo also owned several other restaurants, including the famous Romeo Salta in New York and Chianti in Los Angeles, both of which also drew celebrity crowds such as Grace Kelly in her pre-princess days, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Jack Benny. (For at-home foodies, Salta’s classic recipe book, “The Pleasures of Italian Cooking,” first published in 1962, still can be found online.)
After receiving his own culinary training in London, de Chiara joined his uncle in Los Angeles, opening a West Coast version of Romeo & Juliet. “The stars came to us here, too,” said de Chiara, as he matter-of-factly recalled the many visits of such celebrities as Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who became a good friend.
“The restaurant was an immediate success,” de Chiara said nostalgically. While he credits his culinary heritage for much of that “lovely period,” he also modestly acknowledges that it was his naturally ebullient personality, as well as his passion for the Italian cuisine of his boyhood, that helped attract the nightly crowds. “When I work, I bring a fire to what I do,” he said by way of explanation.
The good times ended, though, when de Chiara’s mother became ill, and in 1985 he closed the Los Angeles restaurant and returned to Washington to care for her. Except for a brief stint in Monte Carlo (where he even played tennis with Prince Albert of Monaco), de Chiara has lived here ever since, working with his brother Renato to create such popular restaurants as Calasia, Trattoria Renato, Renato’s, and Capri throughout Maryland and Virginia.
While de Chiara has shared more than a few meals with the rich and famous throughout his long career, he’s quick to point out that that’s not the clientele Pazzo Pomodoro is designed for. Rather, he hopes that the informally styled restaurant — with its stone walls, hardwood floors, red-and-white-checked tablecloths, and Italian murals — will appeal both to families who stop in for an authentic Neapolitan pizza made in the imported four-ton brick oven, as well as those who want a “high society” meal at affordable prices.
“This is an unpretentious pizza cantina,” said de Chiara, “where we also have specialties from the chef (Raffaele Mastromarino) like zuppa di pesce alla costiera amalfitana (mussels, clams, fish, calamari and shrimp stew), braciola di manzo della nonna (braised skirt steak with “Grandma’s” herbs), risotto con funghi (risotto with mushrooms), and for those who remember the days of Romeo & Juliet (the restaurant, that is, not the Shakespearean tragedy), the signature agnolotti mamma Juliet (house-made dumplings filled with spinach and ricotta in a mascarpone sauce).
“You can come in for one thing and find something else,” said de Chiara enthusiastically.
And it’s that enthusiasm that de Chiara’s diners still can count on, as he welcomes guests, makes menu suggestions and even shows up tableside to prepare a dish himself. He especially likes to get children involved in the process: A lifelong bachelor with no kids of his own, this is his way of passing on the many lessons he has learned from others throughout the years.
“I have been 40 years in this work, in this country,” he said. “I would like to be remembered for what I have done.”