In January of 2012, Carmine Smeraldo, the legendary Seattle restaurateur of Il Terrazzo Carmine died after suffering a stroke. “He collapsed in my arms, and that was the end of it,” says Maria Smeraldo, his wife. Grief stricken, the days following his unexpected death were filled with painful questions for Maria, the family and the loyal community surrounding the Pioneer Square restaurant, a local institution built on Carmine’s specific flare for service.
“He was quite dramatic in that it wasn’t uncommon to see a rack of lamb sailing across the room and hitting the front line, and everybody in the restaurant getting up and clapping for him,” Maria says. “He fought for perfection in everything he did.”
So when he passed away, it was up to Maria and her two sons to make the tough decision about the fate of the restaurant, their family’s longstanding livelihood. She says in the midst of grieving there were many tough conversations about whether they should—or could—sustain the restaurant that for so long was largely dependent on the personality of one man.
“The day after the funeral I walked into [the restaurant], and nobody knew what would happen,” Maria says. One of the obvious options was to give up the business. Maria consulted her two sons, CJ and Philip, and both had strong feelings about what to do.
“We had legitimate offers that would have made it easy to walk away, but I posed it to the boys, and they were very adamant that we held on to it,” Maria says. Another contributing factor to her ultimate decision to keep the restaurant in the family was the support of the staff members, many of which had worked at the restaurant for 10 to 15 years. They all pledged their loyalty to the Smeraldos and stayed on board as she prepared to take the reins. “Everyone stayed. Not a single person left,” Maria says. But even with all the support, she says she still worried about becoming the boss.
Maria has decades of experience in the hospitality business; she holds a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Washington State University, and she owned and operated a small Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant in Pioneer Square long before even meeting Carmine. But after her “passionate romance” with Carmine and eventual marriage, she took a step back from the restaurant business. While she frequented Il Terrazzo and helped her husband build the business in her own way, she says for many years most of her energy was focused on raising her family.
On top of being out of the industry, Maria says she also didn’t know if, even with the help of her boys, she had the energy to run the restaurant as Carmine had done. “I’m at retirement age, so jumping in and doing all the hands-on work in the trenches. … You can get tired after a short time,” she says. But that was when she decided she would rely on the exact personality trait that had drawn her Carmine together in the first place.
“Working in a restaurant has to be a passionate thing, and so many places are lacking in the soul. It was a fight; it’s always been a struggle to build this business. I think now how hard it was to build this business because of the location, but it actually worked for us; it made us a little hungrier, and we overcame that,” Maria says. “I think we were both cut that way to begin with; both of us obviously had the drive to succeed.”
Because CJ and Philip also inherited that drive (both of the boys were valedictorian of their high school class), Maria encouraged them to get as much training as possible and follow in their father’s footsteps. CJ first studied at UCLA, and then he got a “deep culinary training” by working with the Canlis family at their eponymous restaurant, “another legacy restaurant inherited from two generations.”
Philip is currently at the University of Washington getting business degree. “He’s not as much interested in the culinary side of things; he’s more passionate about understanding the methodologies of his father’s ways in terms of how to run the restaurant.”
It’s now been almost three years since Maria and her boys took over. “What’s happened is nothing short of a miracle; the growth we’ve experienced. We’re growing at an incredible rate,” Maria says about Il Terrazzo. But, the family has also grown in another significant way. Just a few months ago, they opened a chic craft cocktail bar with cicchetti specialty items (an Italian reinvention of tapas) called Intermezzo Carmine.
“I wanted to build the most beautiful bar … And the boys were coming aboard, and it was just a great opportunity we had in front of us, especially with the renaissance of Pioneer Square, something me and my husband never thought we’d see happen.” Maria says. “It opened the door to younger diners exploring what tradition means.”
As for the boys, they believe everyone involved made the right decision to let Maria lead the family into the next phase. “She, better than anyone, understood my dad. She has acted with humility and understood that he made this place successful and to take what he did and apply her own ability and her own work ethic to build off that,” says CJ. “She’s more capable in her own right than most people understand.”
Maria says she is thrilled to keep the Il Terrazzo Carmine tradition alive. “We remain very humble; we have perseverance, passion for the art, and never lose gratitude for each body that walks into the door,” Maria says. “I’m never not going to be grateful.”
➸ For more information, visit ilterrazzocarmine.com, intermezzocarmine.com.