Longtime owners reflect on 40 years of Geranio in Old Town

Longtime owners reflect on 40 years of Geranio in Old Town
Troy Clayton and Lucio Bergamin in front of Geranio Ristorante (Photo Credit: Jane Bergamin)

By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Lucio Bergamin and a business partner started their slice of the American dream in 1976 in Old Town.

Bergamin, who is from Venice, Italy, arrived in America and, shortly thereafter, in Alexandria at the suggestion of a friend who wanted to start a restaurant serving up Northern Italian cuisine. His friend also had a building in mind: a space at 722 King St. that was occupied by a small carry out Chinese restaurant.

 “I make a deal and I start to demolish the place and when it closed, I started to make it Geranio,” Bergamin said. “It started very small.There was no money.”

During the early years of the restaurant, the building had no air conditioning or heating. In fact, Bergamin and his partner handed out blankets to customers during cold weather. Once Geranio began to turn a profit, Bergamin turned his focus to the building next door, which housed a camera shop. Bergamin purchased the building with the help of a loan from Burke & Herbert in short order and, soon after, the restaurant expanded its square footage.

 “It became a small gold mine really and a beautiful, beautiful restaurant,” Bergamin said.

 The restaurant, which served its last dinner on Feb. 17, stayed in the family for two decades, though Bergamin’s original business partner eventually bowed out. Bergamin sold the restaurant to Chef Troy Clayton in 1998, but retained ownership of the building.

Clayton ran the restaurant for the next two decades, but had decided it was time to shutter by the time Arlington Property Ventures offered to buy the building from Bergamin. Clayton didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in an email said he plans to open a new restaurant, Occoquan Harbour Grill, in the near future. He didn’t specify a location.

Scott McElhaney, who owns Arlington Property Ventures with wife Lisa McElhaney, are looking for tenants for the building. McElhaney said he expects the space to continue as a restaurant or other food use.

 “We’re really just looking to fill a need in Alexandria. Usually the market speaks for itself. I think, most likely, since this is a second generation restaurant, we’ll see a food use,” McElhaney said. “… It’s an awesome space. It was built in the 1800s and has got some awesome charm – exposed brick walls and original hardwood floors. It screams classic Old Town.” The sale closes a chapter for Bergamin, now 81, and his wife, Jane Bergamin, who met at the restaurant in 1989. The two met when Jane Bergamin’s power went out at her Old Town apartment and she decided to walk into Geranio for a meal. She jokes that she went in for some food and walked out with a husband.

When asked to name some of their favorite memories, Lucio Bergamin recalls a lunch they hosted during the outbreak of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The restaurant invited members of each military branch and their families to three free lunches throughout the course of the day – and, through happenstance, the lunch was scheduled for the day Desert Storm began.

“That for me, it was one of the best days, because I had already become an American and being an American means a lot to me,” Lucio Bergamin said.

 “Fate would have it that the thing was scheduled for a Sunday and a Saturday night was when the war began. We didn’t know that – we had no idea,” Jane Bergamin said. “What happened was the morning of the day this was all happening, the entire press of Washington showed up. We were all over the television and the newspapers.”

Over the years, a number of politicians, both local and national, showed up to dine. Former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John McCain and the families of several presidents, including President George H.W. Bush, were all guests throughout the years, the Bergamins said. Journalists and celebrities would also stop in from time to time.

When Bergamin retired in 1998, then-Mayor Kerry Donley presented Lucio Bergamin with a key to the city. The Bergamins said the honor represented how far the restaurant had come from its humble beginnings.

 “The whole part of King Street west of Washington Street was a no man’s land. There were boarded up buildings. … It wasn’t a very nice area. Lucio was a pioneer, planting the flag for white tabletop dining. He was rewarded by people really liking it. It was a catalyst for that whole part of King Street,” Jane Bergamin said.

 Lucio Bergamin said, though he’s sad about the sale, he will remember his years at the restaurant as some of his happiest.

“I feel very sorry for Troy [Clayton] and for the customers. If I look at myself, I had a tremendous adventure. It was not easy, it was a lot of time to spend there and to sacrifice, but I achieved what other people don’t in this part of the world,” Lucio Bergamin said. “I’m very happy, though it’s an unfortunate thing.”