The Cruz family’s roots may be in El Salvador, but their dreams brought them to Alexandria where they are preparing and serving food that is authentically, deliciously Italian. Fratelli, which features northern Italian cuisine, is located at 410 S. Van Dorn Street in Alexandria’s West End.
Manuel and Marta Cruz grew up in San Miguel, El Salvador. In 1978, they were attending secondary school there when their lives changed forever.
“I was in school and, one day, men from the army came,” Manuel said. “They started picking students and making us come with them to be in the army and fight in the war.
“I told my parents what was happening and they called the mayor who was their friend. They asked him to do something because they did not want their son to be killed or to kill people. Shortly after I got to the army camp, I was released and allowed to go back to my home. That’s when I decided to come to the United States,” Manuel said.
He arrived at Dulles Airport on Arpil 14, 1978. “I will never forget the date,” Manuel said. “I arrived on a Sunday at around 5:00 a.m. and by 4:00 p.m. I had two jobs washing dishes in Old Town. One of those jobs was at Geranio. They were very good to me.”
Manuel and his brother-in-law Alex Cavalero worked at Geranio for 17 years. “They taught us everything,” Manuel said. “I started washing dishes and pretty soon my boss who was the chef told me that I should watch what he did and learn. After six months or so, he let me start making pasta dishes. I spent almost 20 years with Italian people and they were warm and welcoming and very helpful.”
In 1995, Manuel and Cavalero opened the first Fratelli restaurant in Cheverly, Maryland. By that time, Manuel had married Marta and they had one son, Jason.
“We all worked together in the restaurant,” Manuel said. “We named it Fratelli because that means brother in Italian and it was a family business.
“Alex was the head chef at the restaurant in Maryland and he told me that when I was ready, we would open another restaurant in Virginia. We opened this restaurant in Alexandria in 2005. Alex runs the restaurant in Cheverly and his wife manages the front of the house. I run the restaurant here in Alexandria and Marta manages the front of the house. Jason is my assistant chef and he is also a waiter.“I am here six-and-a-half days a week because that’s the only way to maintain consistency. My customers come from the neighborhood and some of them eat here two or three times a week. I have one customer who comes every night. They expect quality and that’s what we are going to give them,” Manuel said.
The menu includes more than 20 chicken dishes and an array of seafood offerings. “Our seafood is fresh and we prepare it in many different ways,” Manuel said. “We make all of our bread here and many of our pastas are also made at the restaurant.”
The lobster ravioli with pink vodka sauce is light and flavorful. The cod, which was cooked in a white wine sauce with shrimp and scallops was tender and delicious. The house salad dressing is made at the restaurant and worthy of bottling.
Gazpacho is a seasonal offering. “I have a garden just outside the restaurant where I grow my own tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and herbs,” Manuel said. “I like everything to be fresh because you can taste the difference.”
The garden is one of the few things Jason doesn’t touch. “My father is really particular about his garden,” Jason said. “It has to be watered and cared for in just the right way.”
Jason has earned an associate degree in business from NOVA and plans to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Washington in the near future. “The plan is that when my father decides to retire, I will run the restaurant,” Jason said. “If I am going to be ready for that responsibility, I have to learn everything about the business: the cooking, the business side, everything.
“When I was a little kid, I was always at the restaurant with my dad. I grew up wanting to be involved. It is a lot of hard work, though, and you have to really love what you do. I really love working with my dad. We get along great,” Jason said.
The restaurant is open from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day. Monday through Wednesday there is always a dinner special: dinner for two with a bottle of wine for $38.95. On Thursday night, Fratelli offers a prime rib dinner for two with a bottle of wine fro $48.95. Sunday brunch buffet is $17.95, $19.95 if you want a mimosa.
In 1984, Manuel because a U. S. citizen. “When I opened this restaurant, I decided that it would be open every day of the year except the fourth of July,” he said. “That is my favorite holiday because I love this country. On that day, I invite family and friends to come to my house and I cook lots of food and we sit together on my deck and drink wine and celebrate. I came here to make a better life for me and my family and this country has helped me make those dreams come true.”
By Carla Branch