In 1980, JoAnna Filomena moved from New York City back to Washington, DC to be closer to her family and her aging mother, Filomena. Having come New York, JoAnna decided to take some time off and spend more time enjoying the company of her friends and family in the Washington area.
After spending a few weeks dining out in Washington, JoAnna realized that she didn't really find any restaurants that offered more than a short meal with unmemorable atmosphere and service within the Washington area. JoAnna also quickly realized that she wasn't really quite ready to have so much time on her hands and saw a need for an Italian restaurant of the style that she had come to know in New York — a place where dinner was more than just a meal and a trip home.
While putting together ideas for an Italian restaurant project, JoAnna began sharing stories with old friends and family about the meals they had experienced together at the home of her mother and father, Filomena and Antimo. JoAnna then began to realize how those experiences had created a beautiful and lasting memory in the minds of those who had dined at Mother Filomena's table.
When thinking back, JoAnna, the youngest girl in the family, began to reconstruct memories of the time she had spent helping her Mother prepare for special meals for family and relatives and helping to decorate.
A very kind and gentle woman, Filomena played the traditional role of an Italian mother of that period: family caretaker and always the host. Filomena frequently had a house full of family and their friends or relatives for dinner.
Even though she had many children and other responsibilities to occupy her time, even when there was just one guest for dinner, Mother Filomena made the table special. There was always a freshly ironed tablecloth (never any wrinkles!), a few simple flowers from her garden or a little handmade decoration. Although Filomena and her family came from a simple background she always had an air of "propriety" about her and her dinner table. She was very fastidious and spent hours making sure that everything was just right for her meal and in her home. Filomena always managed to make dinner warm, welcoming and comfortable – and of course, always delicious!
This ability to make an evening special, seemingly without effort, is what inspired JoAnna to create Filomena Ristorante. If she could recreate her mother's special dinners on a grand scale in a restaurant setting, she knew there would be a place for the restaurant in the Washington dining arena. The entire project eventually became a living shrine to Mother Filomena.
JoAnna transported some of her mother's furniture to the restaurant and set up a dining room (our Filomena Kitchen) that looked similar to Mother Filomena's dining rooms over the years, dominated by the large heavy oak table, carved matching chairs and a large intricate sculpted Murano glass grape chandelier.
JoAnna also brought tons of her Mother's antiques and knick-knacks to give the restaurant her Mother's style. The music chosen for the restaurant was the type of Italian street songs Antimo liked to play on the Concertina in his youth or listened to because they reminded him of his boyhood home in Abruzzi, Italy.
Filomena, whose family also originated from the Abruzzi region of Italy, was a great cook. She had grown up learning very traditional Italian cooking, but found that sometimes it was very difficult to find many of the traditional ingredients. Being very creative, Filomena adapted many of her recipes to use what was available to her. Many of the original items that JoAnna chose to put on her menu were inspired by Mother Filomena's simple, yet creative cuisine, as well as those wonderful old world traditional recipes—some that were prepared for the daily meal, for Sunday dinner, or when company called, or for specific holidays.
One of the most important aspects that JoAnna carried from her family to the restaurant was the tradition of sharing a glass of Sambucca or Amaretto with dinner guests at the end of a meal. JoAnna took this one step further and decided that it would make guests feel more like friends and special "company" if they could pour their own Sambucca at the end of the meal just as they would if they were guests in her home. She also added Amaretto for those who didn't care for Sambucca when she first opened so that they could have a drink with everyone else. Although the Amaretto was more often chosen in the early days of Filomena, that trend has completely reversed itself and now most guests prefer the Sambucca.
JoAnna also decided to bring another family tradition into the restaurant: that of celebrating every holiday to the fullest. Decorating was a priority during the holidays, and so it has become at Filomena. JoAnna had many items from her Mother and has spent countless hours finding and creating just the right decorations to make every holiday something special. Many guests will call to ask if the holiday decorations are still up before coming to dinner – they don't want to miss them. Some guests make it a point to visit the restaurant each and every holiday to check the decorations.
The Christmas tree at Filomena's house was always very special and so our Christmas tree has become a centerpiece for the restaurant. JoAnna always finds a tree that is just a little bit bigger, taller, and fuller than there is room for in the dining room, and decorates it with thousands of antique ornaments, little "treasures" and lights. Guests come to see the tree from all over the world long before and long after Christmas. The most asked questions at Christmas are "How many lights are on the tree," and "How many ornaments are on the tree?" As for the ornaments, we have no idea. They go up in segments, box after box, and there is no way to count them. Guests and employees alike always have fun trying to estimate—the going count is about 5,500. We only know for sure that there are thousands. As to the question of lights, since they go up in strings of 100, we are pretty close when we say at least 10,000.
After almost three years of contractors and painstaking labor, antiquing, cost overruns, permits, and headaches, JoAnna had finally managed to turn the shells of two dilapidated buildings into an Italian Family Fantasy – the Filomena Ristorante.
The doors opened on May 23, 1983 and since that time, people have packed Filomena to catch a glimpse of an all but forgotten time when the dinner table was not only the center of family life, but also the source of entertainment, wonderful memories and great satisfaction for all.
Filomena had 10 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. She died December 13, 1990, but her ability to make life special lives on at Filomena Ristorante. The plaque at her gravesite appropriately says it all. It reads: "She lived her life for those she loved."