When Cafe Italia, a Crystal City Italian restaurant, closed its doors in April, ending decades of plating overstuffed lobster ravioli, tri-color tortellini and bruschetta on homemade bread, Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar, knew exactly what to do. He would reopen the homey restaurant’s doors, refresh its look and make sure the reincarnation would be a place friendly to all kinds of family.
Breathing new life into the restaurant was no pie-in-the sky idea. Lutz was, in fact, very familiar with Cafe Italia’s history. A Northern Virginia native, Lutz returned to the area after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. Looking for a place to earn some cash while searching for jobs, he began working in restaurants, soon finding himself at Cafe Italia. He ended up staying there 25 years, as a waiter first, then as maitre d.’
Opened in 1976, Cafe Italia had been a mainstay in the area, as many other restaurants have come and gone. For Lutz, it was a place where he grew up and where he felt at home. Lutz declined to comment on the previous owners. Arlington Now reports eviction notices signed by the Arlington County deputy sherriff were placed on the door in April.
Before Freddie’s Beach Bar — undoubtedly the best-known gay bar in the Maryland/Virginia suburbs that’s won many Washington Blade Best of Gay D.C. readers’ poll awards — Cafe Italia “was the closest thing to a gay bar in the area,” Lutz says. The restaurant held drag shows at Halloween, flew a gay flag in the entryway, had a number of gay employees and advertised in the Blade.
“It developed into a true place for the gay community,” he says.
Lutz says working at Cafe Italia paved the way for Freddie’s, opened in 2001, success. He says the neighborhood, police and ABC board, welcomed it.
At Cafe Italia, Lutz worked hard to make it a place to call home. With his art background, he coordinated the interior design, marrying warm, old-school Italian with just the right amount of kitsch, such as a long and handsome mahogany bar sporting knick knacks and instruments hung on the walls. Lutz crafted many fond memories over the years and is forever grateful for the influence his time there had over his career. However, over the past few years, the atmosphere has changed.
Lutz is now aiming to turn that around.
“I want to bring it back to its former glory,” Lutz says. “I’ve never felt so confident about a vision for something in my life before.”
From his standpoint, “Café Italia was always gay friendly and Freddie’s was always straight-friendly.” They’ll now be perfect complements.
The backbone of the restaurant is there, so Lutz hope there won’t be too much work and that he’ll be able to open the restaurant again soon. Having just finalized the lease (along with business partners Adolfo and Bertillio Urrutia) in late May, he’s thrilled at the opportunity to bring the restaurant back to its mom-and-pop, down-home coziness as soon as possible, along with a new name, most likely, “Freddie’s Italian Cafe.” He plans to work with other former employees to ensure the new spot reflects its old values and atmosphere as much as possible.
In true romantic Italian fashion, Lutz said that though he loves his work now, he “left his heart at Cafe Italia.”