Above the red, white and green doorway is a sign that says "Entrata." The place is Litteri's Italian grocery store on Morse St. NE. Litteri's has been selling Italian food since 1926.
A Saturday morning in Litteri's is a stroll down the memory lane of Italian-food aromas.
Savor the salami. The olives. The cheeses. Close your eyes and you are back in Mr. DiBlock's, the neighborhood store of my youth, waiting in line at the counter with a note from mother listing what she wanted picked up for dinner.
In DiBlock's, children waited until every adult was served by Mr. DiBlock. He would take long strands of spaghetti out of wide drawers, break off the amount asked for, wrap it in brown paper and tie it with string.
You'd buy a pound and a half. Nothing was pre-packaged.
Sometimes if he felt in a good mood and you waited long enough you might be rewarded with a thick slice of salami or mortadella.
Saturdays, you went to town with your parents, to Boston's North End, where pushcarts lined the streets. On a cold winter day, you could dart inside to an Italian butcher shop to get warm. Here, again, the aromas would stir taste buds.
You could sit at a counter when you were 9 years old and have a doughnut and a cup of coffee with your father. One day I reminded a woman of her son who was then grown, so she reached in her purse and gave me a dime. This all made shopping fun.
Shopping at Litteri's is like an old-fashioned family outing. Coming to browse, the father moves off in one direction, putting pastas into a cart. His wife, at the meat counter, chooses her favorite cuts. The children pay more attention to the sweets.
It's a little pocket of Italy in Washington's Northeast.
My first trip there lasted for several hours, during which I indulged in an orgy of buying. It is not good to go there if you are hungry because you will want to buy everything in the store.
Antonio Litteri, now 86 and retired, is a native of Sicily who came to Washington in 1921. When I told him my name, he broke out in Italian. I was sorry for not having listened to my father.
Litteri is a veteran of the Italian Army and fought alongside the Americans and British in WWI. Right off he said, "I was not a fasciasta."
His first job was loading trucks 6 1/2 days a week for $15. Two years later he bought his own truck and went door-to-door, selling fruit and vegetables.
He opened Litteri Inc. in 1926 on 6th and G streets NW, and moved to 5th and K streets NE before moving to his present address.
Litteri kept the store open 6 1/2 days a week and said, "There was no going to church on Sunday mornings, just work." He paused and laughed. "I can't spell or write English but I can write a check," he said.
Retired to Annapolis, he still drives and can't wait for summer so he can work in his big vegetable garden.
"I am an expert cook, and tonight I will have some friends over for my marinara sauce, spaghetti and sausage, a salad and a glass of wine. I keep very busy and like to see people happy."
The store is now run by his two great-nephews, Mike and Chris DeFrancisci, who are helped by Frank Baccala.
Chris, 27, a Villanova graduate with a degree in social psychology from George Washington University, seems overqualified to run an Italian grocery store but he and his brother took over when their father suffered a heart attack two years ago. Mike, 24, has been working in the store ever since he was old enough to lift groceries. He studied business at Montgomery College.
Besides the swarms of customers that come in each week, Litteri services 300 restaurants and pizza parlors, dispensing about 5,000 pounds of homemade sausage a week.
Frank Baccala, a tal, strong-looking man, stands behind the cash register and keeps a steady chatter with customers he knows by their first names. "Baccala can do everything," Chris said. "He is a skilled butcher, an expert refrigerator-repair man, and he puts in seven days a week at times, working 70 to 80 hours." Baccala has been working at Litteri's since 1951.
A man stops by the register and tells him to put five loaves of bread aside, and Baccala will say, "Mama mia, take sure your check won't bounce."
The frozen pastas catch your eye first, then the large cheese ravioli and gnocchi. There are shelves of pasta in every shape or form from tubettini, a tiny pasta for soup, to wide macaroni. In cans you can find calamari (squid), scungili (conch), baby clams, caponata-da-melanzana, octopus in olive oil and two-pound jars of Italian peppers in thick dark tomato sauce.
But the meat counter is where the crowd keeps four butchers running to fill the orders. The sign over the counter says, "Si Prega Prendere Ii Numero," or "Please take a number."
There are long strands of thick Italian sausage freshly made, both sweet and hot. The capacolla (Italian ham) is dark and red and thinly sliced with just a touch of red pepper. just a touch of red pepper. Prosciutto sliced paper thin and served with ripe melon, is a delight on a lazy Sunday morning.
Ah, if food were love, wars would never be fought.
My shopping cart slowly fills.
Another custromer, Mario Cardullo, who teaches Italian cooking in Virginia, is showing two of his students how to shop when Baccala points to Cardullo and says, "He's the best Italian cook in the world."
Another customer, standing nearby, asks Cardullo for a sauce recipe, gets a quick lesson and takes off with a shopping cart.
Such is the light atmosphere of the store where everyone talks to each other.
In linger there, hanging around a memory.