Mark Adams, executive chef at Ricardo’s Italian Café in Lafayette Square, has pursued his twin passions of cooking and diving since he was a kid. The former is his livelihood, while the latter is a longtime hobby that benefits diving students at a number of area high schools. Adams started his career at age 15 washing dishes at a local Howard Johnson’s, “and that was it,” he says. “I had the bug and have always worked in restaurants since then.”He worked his way up the career ladder, going from dishwasher to prep cook to waiter. “I bounced around as a server,” says Adams. “I worked at Pasta House, JR Federhoffer’s, a number of places.”In 1988 he went out on his own, purchasing Salvatore’s restaurant at 2001 Park Avenue. “It was a fluke,” he recalls. “I had worked for a number of other restaurants, but I didn’t want the pressure of management. So, I went back to work at Salvatore’s. Then nine months later I ended up buying it, taking over as owner and head chef.” Adams had worked at Salvatore’s for a number of years as he built up experience. “When the Salvatore family moved, Lafayette Square was just coming into its own,” he recalls. “I kept everything pretty much the same on the menu, just using my own recipes. A year later people told me they didn’t even notice that the name (of the restaurant) had changed. As years went on, we added more of our fare. Now, everything on the menu is our own.”
Adams tries to buy from local farmers and produce merchants whenever possible to keep his dishes stocked with the best in area vegetables. “In the summertime, we always buy from farmers’ markets, fresh produce on a weekly basis,” he says. “We also buy from local distributors, ‘mom and pop’ places, supporting independent businesses like ourselves.”While Italian food is plentiful nearby on The Hill, Adams wasn’t fazed with opening another Italian restaurant. “The Hill was in the back of my mind,” he says, “but I focused on Lafayette Square, bringing in more people as the Square itself grew. I put out the best product I could to bring them in.”The most popular item on the menu is the chicken spedini, says Adams. But he himself is partial to his risotto dishes. “Our son Tim is one of the chefs at Cielo at the Four Seasons and he helped me perfect my risotto. I really enjoy serving that to people. We specialize in a lot of Italian-American dishes, but our dinner specials are based on the regions of central and northern Italy, where Michelle and I have been several times. Dishes such as penne vodka or risotto are wonderful.”The 49-year-old Adams says he’s always coming up with something new, creating dinner specials or new appetizers for the bar at Happy Hour. “Any time I can create something different it’s exciting for me,” he says.