Mugs' Italian Bistro, a Little Italy staple for seven decades, will reopen under a new chef and owner this summer — and he's bringing back the phone booth.
Todd Sheppeard is reopening the space at 300 S. Exeter St. and targeting a July 3 debut, pending city permits and inspections.
The reopening will revive a longtime neighborhood cornerstone. Marion "Mugs" Mugavero opened the shop and eatery as Mugavero's Confectionery in 1947 and owned it until he retired in 2012 at age 89. His children, Greg Mugavero and Gayle Mugavero-Grimm, remodeled and reopened the restaurant as Mugs' Italian Bistro a year later, but closed it again in 2015 following their father's death.
After searching for a new operator to lease the eatery, Mugavero-Grimm connected with Sheppeard, a Rockville resident and hopeful restaurateur. Through several meetings, they soon discovered their families had roots in the same area in Italy, Sheppeard said.
"It was like walking into home," he said. "I saw how much this place means to the family."
An Army veteran and Culinary Institute of America graduate, Sheppeard previously operated the Food Force One food truck in Northern Virginia. He also has his own line of sauces called Chef-T, which he'll offer for sale at the restaurant.
Mugavero-Grimm said it was important to her family to find a new owner who would honor her father's name, and Sheppeard aims to do just that.
"He was such a presence in Little Italy,” Mugavero-Grimm said of her father. "In those types of neighborhoods you have people who unofficially run the show, and he was certainly one of those people that if anybody had a problem you would go to him."
Sheppeard said he will dedicate a wall in the shop to Mugavero and his family, and add pictures of his own family to the corner eatery's walls. He doesn't plan to change too much about the space. He's bringing back a phone booth that sat in the restaurant when Marion Mugavero owned it (Mugavero called it his "office"), and he'll coat the walls with fresh paint.
But Sheppeard hopes to elevate the food at the 32-seat restaurant. He'll start out opening for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, with brunch only on Sundays. And in the fall he plans to add dinner service on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, offering reservation-only dinners with "mystery menus" that will change daily.
"I want it to be the community hot spot again," he said.
That means keeping the menu affordable, while preparing most of the food from scratch, including breads, pastas and sausages. For breakfast, he plans on serving staples like pancakes, eggs, fresh bread and pastries, and he expects the most expensive breakfast item will be about $9. He'll offer sandwiches and eventually house-made pastas for lunch, with dishes running no more than $13.
Soon, Sheppeard also plans to join the neighborhood as a resident, moving into the apartment above the restaurant when it becomes available this fall.
"I always wanted to live above where I worked," he said. "This place was a match for me."
He said he's committed to Little Italy, and he's not concerned that the neighborhood has seen a spate of recent restaurant closures.
"Little Italy will never die," he said.