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Buon appetito!

Italian deli relocates to new Dupont location

(Published September 6, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The first thing customers notice about Viareggio is the smell of roasted garlic. The scent wafting from the entrées, pizzas and calzones fills the store and spills out the doors onto Connecticut Avenue. Pedestrians walking by invariably turn their heads to find the source of the enticing aroma and more often than not walk into Dupont Circleís newest eatery and market.

The market is a bounty of Italian delights that are hard to come across in this city with no Italian neighborhood to speak of. Deli cases are stuffed with proscuittos, sopressatas and capicollo sausages, and pecorino, reggiano and fontinella cheeses. Italian sandwiches are made there to order with the customersí choice of meats and toppings. The shelves across the way are stocked with two dozen types of olive oils, pastas and various pickled vegetables and canned goods that are standard in Italian kitchens. The coffee bar also serves fresh pastries and the cannolis are filled fresh when the customers order them.

The source of the garlicky aroma that catches peopleís attention is the kitchen in the back of the market where, besides the pizzas and calzones, daily pasta, seafood and veal entrees are prepared.

Viareggio, which opened Aug. 10 at 1727 Connecticut Ave. NW, is a new location for an old store from a family with a Washington tradition of running Italian markets. Owner Chris Niosi is determined to keep that tradition alive and make it thrive in Dupont Circle.

The Niosi family has been in the deli business for most of the century. Niosiís grandfather, also named Chris, owned and operated the Little Italy deli at 2nd and G streets NW for 57 years, until the city decided to put a highway there in 1967.

Niosi still remembers telling his brokenhearted grandfather after Little Italy closed, "Relax Nonno, one day Iím going to resurrect your store."

It took 22 years, but eventually Niosi made good on that promise. He bought the first Viareggio, near Catholic University in Brookland, back in 1989 from an Italian woman who was ready to retire. Niosiís grandfather was one of Viareggioís suppliers in the 1940s and Ď50s, so the families knew each other and Niosiís purchase of the store was almost a family affair.

Already a neighborhood landmark, Niosi cultivated a large and loyal clientele that made his venture a success. But he eventually outgrew the 750-square-foot location and, after finding a partner willing to finance the move, Niosi took his operation across town.

Moving his store to Dupont Circle was no piece of cannoli, however. Six days after signing the lease for the new location in April 1998, Niosiís wife Victoria gave birth to their third child. At the time, he didnít realize it would be 18 months before the new location would be ready to open.

He spent most of that time refinishing the vintage shelves and bakery cases he brought from the Brookland location by himself and getting the store set up the way he wanted it. Then he had to get the store stocked and his staff of 30 trained in preparation for opening day.

"Look at me, Iíve lost 40 pounds," Niosi said. Aside from that, he said working the long hours to get the store open has meant he hasnít seen much of his family lately, something he said has been hard on him.

Niosi said his regular customers, deprived of their Italian deli goods and Niosiís sandwiches for 18 months, flocked in by the hundreds right after opening. He said his wife worked a phone list of almost 3,000 regulars from the Brookland location, keeping them updated about the progress of the new store.

But the true test of the need Viareggio is meeting is the surprised and excited looks on the faces of pedestrians and neighbors as they walk by the storefront, and then follow their noses inside.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator