Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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This Columbus Day I spent a fun hour in the heart of Italy, after a fashion.

In the wood-paneled boardroom in the Westover Italian Store, proprietor Bobby Tramonte told me fresh tales of his Italian forebears. (Disclosure: he and I are school chums.)

While scads of customers eyed the store’s subs, wine, gourmet cheese, oils and pizza, I eyed Tramonte’s maps of Italy’s 20 regions, flags, portraits, sommelier diplomas and the original Italian passports that brought his great-grandfather et al to America in the 19th century.

Though Mondays are his busy vendors’ day, Tramonte recapped the story of his business — and how it connected him to his Italian roots.

The original Italian Store (still booming in Lyon Village) opened in a former High’s in 1980 when Bobby and older brother Mike were ending years of managing their parents’ hip Bayou nightclub in Georgetown. Their choices were “going back to school, working for someone else or opening our own business — Dad would be our financial angel,” Bobby said.

Growing up, Bobby had only vague consciousness of his Italian heritage — an uncle living in the basement. But they embraced the notion of taking the Italian fare they served at the nightclub to launch a sandwich and wine store. “Dad said that Washington was missing out on a lot of transplanted Italians,” and D.C. already had plenty of white-collar eateries, he said. “Northern Virginia was far enough from New York that people here crave Italian food, but close enough to ship it here quickly.”

Early on, Italian-born customers – families who came five times a week – “kept us going,” Tramonte said. But soon the store’s sub lines were long and his team was supplying pasta and sausage to 15 restaurants (Nathan’s, Clyde’s, the Alpine). “It took six months” from the drawing board to a certificate of occupancy, Tramonte noted, compared with two years it took to navigate county regulations to open in Westover in 2015. (A planned Italian Store for Reston was headed off by competition, and a branch in Seven Corners flourished for a decade.)

Today, the Italian Store makes its own pasta and insists on organic wine pressed by Italy’s family businesses – tastings can sell $3,000 worth in a night.

With the business established and with wife Laura and five children, Tramonte in the 1990s began traveling to Italy. He researched his genealogy. At the airport, a driver insisted he visit his ancestral town of Acri, in the off-the-tourist-track region of Calabria. There in 2006, strangers embraced him, helped him find birth records and partied into the night. “You’re family now,” the Italians said. “People were crying,” Tramonte recalls. “They always knew they had family in America but never thought they would meet them.”
Doing online research, he befriended Connecticut-based Charlie Tramonte, with whom he shared relatives in New York. It was he who sent Bobby a packet of old family photos and passports signed by the King of Italy. Translated on the back, one dated 1889 allowed ship passage for Vincenzo Tramonte, age 48, a barber who was the son of Gennaro, and two sons, Raffaele and Francesco. The next year came the passport for Nunziata Paterno a seamstress age 39, with sons Mariano (Bobby’s grandfather) and Giovanni, and daughter Carmella.

Bobby offered to make copies. But his newfound Italian-American family member said, “You keep them.”

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Al Richmond, a retired Marine from the Washington-Lee High School Class of ’57, will again run the Marine Corps Marathon Oct. 22. At 78, he has participated in every one since the event started in 1976.

The 26.2 mile race, which starts at Arlington’s Iwo Jima memorial, was launched right after the Vietnam-War-era draft ended, said Richmond, who was called from reserves back to active duty in time for the first big race.

The reputation of Marines for “toughness and fitness” was good for recruiting, he told me. The mid-‘70s was also when the running craze was getting moving.