Editors' pick

A. Litteri


Editorial Review

Someday, perhaps, A. Litteri, Washington's oldest Italian grocery store, will be one of many specialty markets, restaurants and art galleries at a revitalized Capital City Market. A model would be SoHo in New York. But for now forklifts and 18-wheelers rule Capital City, a gritty warehouse district within sight of the Capitol dome (the market is bordered by New York Avenue, Florida Avenue and Sixth Street NE). Here, A. Litteri is one of a kind.

"People are always asking me if there is another market to go to, a Greek market, a French market. But we have nowhere to send them," says owner Michael DeFrancisci. His great-uncle and grandfather founded the business in 1926 at Sixth and G streets NW and moved in 1932 to its present location at 517 Morse St. NE. Most of the warehouses in this commercial zone are occupied by wholesale businesses.

Still, at A. Litteri every Saturday is "old family" day. People of Italian ancestry--folks who once lived in neighborhoods east of the Capitol--make the trek from suburbia and beyond. They are joined by a newer collection of customers drawn to this traditional grocery by its large selection of Italian products and reasonable prices.

To appease the old families, DeFrancisci continues to carry brands they are familiar with. To attract new customers, he stocks a wide selection of products from every part of Italy. "The kind of things they found while traveling in various regions of the country," he says.

Take olive oil, for example. Litteri's generational crowd heads straight for the gold-toned tins of Filippo Berio, a light, all-purpose oil. Newcomers search through the selection of more than 80 brands of extra virgin olive oil for fruity La Giara from Calabria, delicate Canpineto from Tuscany and intense Madre Sicilia from Sicily, which is great for drizzling on crusty bread.

Who buys red wine vinegar by the gallon? That would be the traditional group. The newcomers spend time studying the more than 30 brands of balsamic vinegar.

Steps away in the frozen foods case there are ravioli and tortellini stuffed with everything from turkey to tofu. But it's gnocchi, potato dumplings, that are "selling like crazy," he says. Original customers prefer Casa Di Bertacchi. "They say they taste just like homemade." Others zero in on the snappy packaging of Casa Di Pasta.

In the pasta aisle: "The old-timers, all they can relate to is rigatoni, spaghetti and linguine," he says. With six brands and more than two dozen shapes there are plenty of bags of penne and fusilli for anyone who drops by.

A deli counter stretches across the back of Litteri's. Year after year Italians have asked for Locatelli Romano, a sharp, salty grating cheese and imported Auricchio, a very sharp, salty and grainy provolone cheese. To flavor pasta, bean dishes and soup they select a prosciutto "end"--the hoof section of meat that remains after the leg has been sliced away. The walk-in trade orders English Stilton cheese and Danish blue cheese.

There is agreement in the deli department, however. Everyone buys the house-made Italian sausage (hot or mild). Anyone would like the convenience of the ready-to-bake pizza crusts and one-pound bags of grated mozzarella cheese and sliced pepperoni sausage. The sauce of choice is "not too sweet" Don Pepino.

For any kind of celebration, Litteri's thick, meaty subs are filling, as well as festive. A six-foot, Italian cold cut submarine sandwich (serves 22), with capicola ham, Genoa salami, mortadella sausage, prosciuttini and provolone cheese is $65--a bargain in Capital City Market or anywhere else.

-- Walter Nicholls