Remembrance

The Legacy of Cafe Pettirosso

A Capitol Hill favorite recently said farewell after 27 years. Pettirosso was never a flashy place, but the longtime spot for coffee, brunch, and doggy biscuits nurtured a neighborhood ecosystem.

By Ann Karneus February 18, 2022

Yet another reminder of Capitol Hill’s rapidly changing landscape. 

Although restaurants meet their demises with discouraging regularity, it still stung when Cafe Pettirosso closed on February 6 after nearly three decades on Capitol Hill.

Faced with hardships endemic to their industry, sisters and co-owners Yuki and Miki Sodos’ decision to call it quits shocked the community. Fans mourned the imminent loss of  favorites like the grilled cheese and tomato soup, carrot cake, and Shawn’s vegan mac–its name and recipe both courtesy of Yuki’s husband.

But at the risk of sounding cliche, the devoted regulars that tirelessly rooted them on cherished Pettirosso for reasons stretching far beyond the actual cuisine. Even during the dreadful early chapters of quarantine, loyalists bought carry-out cocktails in emphatic demonstrations of support.

Over time, Pettirosso transcended its status as a mere cafe and “became its own living being,” according to Miki. The restaurant’s origins lie with Robin Wright, who founded Café Pettirosso (Italian for ‘robin’) as a humble coffee cart in 1994. After Yuki and Miki took over in 2011, they vowed to continue her legacy for as long as possible.

Pettirosso enjoyed an uncommonly long tenure, cementing itself as an unshakable institution within a neighborhood subject to relentless turnover. The Sodoses recall the owners and employees of Caffe Vita, Barça (another casualty of the pandemic), and Poquitos stopping in for coffee or a meal. In the mornings, regulars would swing by to pick up house-made doggy biscuits. Miki considers Pettirosso “the underdog of the neighborhood,” a place deeply enmeshed in the quotidian routines of Capitol Hill residents and workers.

Then the pandemic hit. Also looming darkly on the horizon was a new build-out scheduled for their historically designated H.W. Baker Linen Supply Co. building. It was still years away, but the Sodoses just finished paying off investors from the building’s last gutting. It’s not that they couldn’t make it work, necessarily, Miki says. But ultimately doing it again was too grueling to consider. Throw in an imminent raise in rent post-build-out—the future seemed bleak and exhausting.

The heartbreak may have a silver lining. The Sodoses are considering relocating down the road (they’re keeping the legal structure of the business open) but nothing is in the works yet. Meanwhile, they keep busy running their other two restaurants, Bang Bang Cafe and Bang Bang Kitchen.

Business owners all over Capitol Hill—and all over the city—are asking themselves how to keep pace with the city’s change. Increasingly, the question shifts to “do I even want to?” For the sisters, being frustrated is an understatement. But Miki and Yuki were touched by the community’s overwhelming display of support. In Pettirosso’s final days, every staff member stayed until the end, and customers were “crying, sobbing, and coming in and hugging us and thanking us,” says Miki. “The last few weeks would have been much harder and much angrier for me if it wasn't for all the love we were getting.”

 

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