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Bites Nearby: The Story Behind Cristina in Wheaton

Familiar faces and a quaint atmosphere make this Italian restaurant a neighborhood fixture.

What does a man who once owned three restaurants do after selling the businesses and finding out retirement is not for him? The answer was simple for Nick Kontos. He went back to what he knows best. That is how Cristina Italian Ristorante came to Wheaton in May of 2002.

"It's a tough business, but I love the restaurant business. I love to communicate with the customers, to talk with the people. That's really enjoyable for me," said Kontos, the restaurant's owner.

After serving Greek and Italian food to restaurant goers in Bethesda and College Park, Kontos wanted new customers to enjoy the Italian food he adores. As the son of an Italian mother and Greek father, Kontos learned to appreciate the native cuisines of both his parents.

Which cuisine does he prefer?

"I'll be honest. I can say 50/50. I love both. I used to have a Greek restaurant, and I missed the Italian food. Now, I have an Italian restaurant, and I miss the Greek food," Kontos said.

Cristina's owner started in the food business at age 15. He once worked on an Italian passenger ship as a waiter. He arrived in the U.S. almost 50 years ago and married an American.

His restaurant on University Boulevard has an old world feel with its white tablecloths, colorful art and attentive staff.

"It's kind of an oasis. It is very unusual in this area to have a family-owned business that has really good Italian food," said Shawn Alexander, a Woodmoor resident. "It's just a great place to eat. We love it."

Alexander's 6-year-old son, Caden, is a fan of the fresh mussels in white wine sauce and the Clams Casino. His 9-year-old brother, Anthony, named calamari and the shrimp parmigiana among his favorites.

The Alexander boys and their father started coming to the restaurant a couple of years ago. Other regulars are just as familiar with the menu and the waiters. They call this cozy spot Cristina's, and they greet Kontos like an old friend.

"Mr. Nick is a wonderful person, and they take good care of me here," said Paula Parker, a patron and District resident. "The food is priced reasonably, and the dishes are good."

Entrees such as Zuppa di Pesce are popular. For $24.95 you get fresh fish, jumbo shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels and scallops in a tomato and garlic broth served over linguine pasta. The veal dishes, including Vitello alla Parmigiana and Scallopine alla Marsala, are just under $20. The chicken entrees and pastas are priced from $12.95 to $17.95.

"The specialties are the veal and the seafood," Kontos said. "Also, I have fresh pasta homemade here."

The executive chef leading the kitchen team has been with Kontos for many years. Gabriel Campos left New York to rejoin his mentor at Cristina. "I like it here. It's small and quiet. You can do many things," said Campos.

The owner also raves about Alicia Hernandez, the manager/waiter who started working with him 25 years ago. Kontos, his wife Barbara, and the staff take pride in making the restaurant inviting and satisfying. At 74, Kontos still spends long hours there to make sure the food meets his standards.

"You take away the restaurant business and you take away my life," said Kontos. "I'm here from 6 in the morning until 11 at night to take care of my customers."

Check out Cristina's website for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch hours. The restaurant has a full bar service as well as an Italian wine list. Parking is available at the meters out front. A public parking lot is about half a block east of Cristina Italian Ristorante located at 2666 University Boulevard West.

Note: This is a restaurant profile, not a review. Opinions expressed do not represent the ideas of the writer or Patch.

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