Back when Ruffino's Spaghetti House first opened, an irresistible red-and-green glow beckoned passersby inside. These days, owner Mike Shahidi says customers keep coming around out of devotion.
"It's an icon in North Arlington. People have a lot of good memories and a connection to the restaurant," he said. "They were little kids when they were first coming here and now they're grown up and bring in their own children."
One doesn't develop that degree of loyalty overnight.
Shahidi, the third owner to operate the longstanding red sauce joint, has four decades of goodwill on his side. He said the restaurant's founder put down roots in the community in 1975. The second owner — he who oversaw the comprehensive facelift that shut the place down for an extended period in late 2010 — moved out of the area several years back, handing his friend, Shahidi, the reins.
This is the second time Shahidi has called the shots in the hospitality trade. HIs first go-around was as co-owner of another restaurant while living in Chicago.
What most attracted him to Ruffino's, Shahidi said, was the opportunity to expand upon its storied history. A neighboring competitor (the former Alpine Restaurant) closed in 2010, leaving Ruffino's as the primary source for pasta dishes along the busy strip of Lee Highway nestled between North George Mason Drive and North Glebe Road.
The wholesale renovation breathed new life into Ruffino's. The neon lettering, which Shahidi categorized as a bona fide antique, was relocated to the back in order to make room for a next-generation welcome mat. The inside was gutted from floor to ceiling. Today, borrowed art adorns the walls (artist Mimi Rivkin is identified as the creator of one soothing still life). Polished wood floors shine from below while glossy black tiles and eggplant-colored walls wrap around from all sides.
The core menu, on the other hand, has remained fairly consistent for at least a decade. "We kept the old menu. But that doesn't mean we come up with new stuff," Shahidi shared.
Guests are encouraged to construct their own culinary adventures from available starches including angel hair, tortellini, gnocchi, linguine and manicotti. Traditional offerings range from marinara-soaked spaghetti and creamy fettuccine Alfredo to chicken Marsala and veal piccata.
Per Shahidi, linguine with clams, chicken Parmigiana and the housemade lasagna -- layered with seasoned beef, bubbling ricotta and garlicky tomato sauce -- remain top sellers. He's working on broadening the menu's reach by introducing more vegetarian options and Mediterranean-style dishes.
While he's got an Italian chef running the back of the house, Shahidi said he remains intimately involved in culinary decisions. "I love cooking," he said, adding, "I am in the kitchen all the time."
Shahidi has no doubt that nostalgia helps fill the chairs on any given night. But he's discovered that the restaurant also lays claim to a very particular constituency: long-distance runners. Shahidi said that for years Marine Corps Marathoners have piled into the restaurant to carbo-load ahead of the exhausting 26-plus-mile ordeal.
They may be more sedentary than their racing brethren, but Shahidi loves his regulars all the same. "They are basically like a part of my family," he said of the friendly faces that float in and out of the dining room on a daily basis.
He gets a little worried when certain folks don't come around as often as they used to, either because of work, family or relocation. But that separation tends to make every reunion that much sweeter. "When they come back to Washington, they always make an effort to visit Ruffino's to say ‘Hi!' to me," Shahidi said.