Andrew LaPorta, the gregarious chef-owner of well-regarded seafood restaurant Pesce in Dupont Circle, died suddenly of natural causes Friday, February 5, at the age of 48.
For the past five years, LaPorta was the lone operator of the historic restaurant founded by famed French chef Jean Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna over 25 years ago. Dalavy Sadettan La Porta, the chef’s wife, says Pesce will permanently close.
“We are shutting it down,” Sadettan La Porta says. “There is no one who’s going to run it.”
Sadettan La Porta says her husband suffered from diabetes and kidney issues and collapsed at home on Friday morning. LaPorta had a long career in D.C.’s dining scene. According to his obituary, he worked his way through kitchens at nationally respected cafe Palena, Georgetown Italian institution Filomena, fine dining stalwart 1789, Russia House, and Biergarten Haus. He started working at Pesce in 2012 and bought it from Regine Palladin, Jean Louis’s widow, in 2017.
Under LaPorta’s watch, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema praised Pesce in 2019, writing “there’s no finer fish house in Washington.” Sietsema returned to Pesce last year to sample walnut-crusted walleye and softshell crab.
LaPorta’s daily specials, scrawled on chalkboards that frequently advertised a three-course lobster prix fixe, highlighted premium ingredients such as dover sole from the Netherlands, Alaskan king crab shipped live, and hamachi from Japan.
“Sometimes it wasn’t what it cost on the plate — he put the food first,” says Brine oyster bar owner Aaron McGovern, LaPorta’s boss at Russia House and Biergarten Haus for six years. “I’m like, ‘Man that’s awesome looking stuff.’ He’s like, ‘I know it’s crazy. I shouldn’t buy it, but I have to.’”
As the son of a foreign service ambassador, the self-described “diplo-brat” was born in Malaysia and spent a good amount of his life traipsing across Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, and New Zealand.
“The way he grew up really influenced his passion in food,” McGovern says. “He had that rare and authentic ability to learn a culture’s food.”
In late 2019, LaPorta replaced his Pesce Too pop-up on Capitol Hill with a short-lived restaurant called Phing Tham, devoted to the “unapologetically spicy” foods he grew up eating in Southeast Asia. His wife, who is from Laos, contributed curry expertise and did much of the prep work at their home in Bethesda.
LaPorta is also survived by their two daughters, ages 7 and 3. A GoFundMe campaign for the kids’ welfare and education has raised nearly $40,000 of a $150,000 goal. LaPorta did not have life insurance.
For McGovern, who’s long shared vendors like ProFish with LaPorta, the loss of an industry colleague and close friend of 13 years is devastating.
“I don’t think I’ve gone a couple weeks without texting or chatting with him in years,” he says. “It breaks my heart. I am the father of two kids and can’t imagine them not having me.”
He last saw LaPorta a week ago over a glass of Sancerre at Pesce, “just shooting the shit and taking his mind off things.”
He says the stresses of the pandemic were clearly taking a toll on LaPorta.
“At the end it was Andrew by himself, waiting tables, cheffing, dishwashing,” McGovern says. “He hated it, but he said, ‘I have to do it, what else am I going to do?’”
Upon opening Brine last summer, McGovern recruited some Pesce employees with LaPorta’s blessing because he couldn’t afford to keep them on board.
“We are all trying to survive in the past year,” McGovern says. “I think it hit us all in this industry tremendously hard, and more specifically, it hit Pesce harder. Because his clientele’s demographic is older and a [vulnerable to] COVID crowd. They stayed in.”
LaPorta’s family contacted Regine Palladin this week, but she’s retired and not coming back to the restaurant. Ann Winget La Porta, the chef’s mother, says he was still heavily invested in saving it right until he died.
“He had plans to expand and change the menu beyond fish. But that’s all gone now,” she says.