Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

“Everybody goes….to Mario’s…..It’s Mario’s Pizza House…in Arlington town!”

Those radio jingles from the 1960s re-invaded my brain last week when word came online that the venerable Wilson Boulevard pit stop for all with the late-night munchies may be sold.

Well, not quite. The underlying 16,000-square-foot parcel hosting Mario’s and its leased partner, Carvel soft ice cream, will be offered at commercial auction Dec. 20. But the 54-year-old pizza stalwart, I have it on the best authority, will continue baking and frying for years—though intriguing changes are in the works.

I have two personal connections to Mario’s. (That’s not counting my role as a customer—what self-respecting graduate of Yorktown or Washington-Lee high schools never detoured over to savor Mario’s emblematic 4 x 4 pizza slices and wickedly tempting steak and cheese subs?)

As a boy I played on the Mario’s Little League team. And I grew up three doors down from Mario’s founders, the Levine family.

This month, Mario’s president Alan Levine and I met up at the circus-white and-red-colored restaurant to get reacquainted just before the auction was announced.

Alan had a career in commercial real estate after he joined his mother in running Mario’s. When the parents died in the late 1980s and he was battling some health issues, the property went to his older sister Lesley, a prominent physician in California. He worked for 15 years to buy her share, allowing him to move to Florida and Southern California to nurture other investments, though he now lives in Arlington.

“Owning Mario’s gives me a unique opportunity to see many people that I grew up with and now grow old with,” Levine says, noting that three on his staff have been serving the hot stuff for more than 50 years. “We don’t’ treat employees like normal fast food places do, and there’s very little turnover, he said. “People don’t stay for 50 years if they’re not treated well.”

Mario’s neon flashes 365 days a year, 7 a.m. to 4. a.m. (Staying open the remaining three hours would be “just trouble,” Levine says, calling it a high-crime window.)

In all its fries and onions glory, Mario’s earns decent grades from health inspectors given that the building, originally a florist’s and later the site of a mini-golf course, is 65 years old, he adds.

The biggest threat now is competition from pizza in nearby Clarendon. For years Mario’s ruled the late-night market, Levine says, but now many hotels have vending machines and mini-marts.

A decade ago, Levine decided to take advantage of the fact that hotel room service tends to stop in late evening. Using phone lines in the back of Mario’s, he started Dr. Delivery, a take-out driving service contracted with 100 restaurants. It catered to Mom and Pop stores that lacked insurance coverage for deliveries.

This year, Levine sold Dr. Delivery to make time for more entrepreneurial ambitions. These include expanding Mario’s building to create display space for his pursuits in solar energy and electric bicycles (A topic for a coming column.)

The reason for selling the land assessed at $3 million, Levine says, is to create cash by acknowledging it as prime real estate near Metro, possibly attractive for high-rise development. “Progress is hard to fight,” he says, “and I want to be a part of this progress here in Arlington.”