Walking into A. Litteri Inc., which has been supplying Italian food products to Washingtonians since 1926, is like entering another world. "Where else can you talk to the clerks in Italian?" asked longtime patron Ada DiValentin.
"There's nothing like it anywhere," said DiValentin, who has shopped there regularly since arriving from Italy 30 years ago. "The place is so traditional. It has everything just like in Italy. I moved to North Carolina for a couple of years, and I couldn't wait to come back here to stock up."
At 517 Morse St. NE since 1932, Litteri's retail outlet still is run by members of the families that founded it. Christopher DeFrancisci, whose great-uncle and grandfather founded the business, is the firm's president. His younger brother, Michael, is vice president.
When it comes to decor, Litteri's doesn't emulate trendy, upscale gourmet shops. This culinary landmark resembles more a quintessential neighborhood grocery store. Dispensing with frills also allows Litterri's to pass along lower prices. For example, it sells a pound of Reggiano parmesan cheese for $9.75 a pound; Sutton Place Gourmet gets $13.59.
Sixty feet wide and 300 feet long, the store is lined on one side and down the middle with six vertical rows of shelves that contain myriad products, including five brands of pasta, each with 20 cuts, and seven brands of olive oil in assorted sizes from 8-ounce bottles to 5-liter cans.
Although appetite-whetting smells do not permeate the store, they do dominate at each end. At the entrance, the aroma of freshly baked breads catches patrons' attention. Baked daily by a nearby Italian bakery, a few samples lie on the counter under the watchful eye of cashier Cheryl Hankins. The others rest in bags close at hand.
However, the piece de resistance is at the back. There, neatly stored in the refrigerated display case, are 35 cheeses and 20 types of meats. The aroma is further enhanced by the assortment of olives that are stored in large barrels behind the meats and cheeses, as well as by a variety of spices that are packaged in half-pound bags.
Thomas DeFrancis, Christopher and Michael DeFrancisci's uncle, has been at Litteri's for more than half a century. In fact, he used to own part of it. He comes in early six days a week, usually before the store opens at 8 a.m.
"I've tried retiring three times," confessed DeFrancis, "but it never worked. I get up at 5 o'clock every morning anyway, and I get bored staying at home. The old-timers come in and ask for me, usually in Italian. And I'm good for business, too. For every dollar the others take in, I take in $10."
"Counting wholesale and retail, we are doing around $7 million a year in sales," Christopher DeFrancisci said. "But we ran into some real troubles in the wholesale end. Essentially, we couldn't see the trees for the forest. Our new facility on V Street was too costly, and we were so busy working around the clock here at the retail level, we didn't pay enough attention to the overall financial details."
Consequently, in March 1987, the DeFranciscis sold the wholesale division to Baltimore's Continental Food Co. "Sure, I was sad about that," said Christopher DeFrancisci, "but it has allowed us to concentrate so well on this retail store, and Mike and I no longer have the headaches of paying the wholesale bills."
The retail component accounts for annual gross revenue of $1 million, and the brothers spend all day Saturday in the store. During the week, they commute to Baltimore as salaried employees of the wholesale operation. "It made sense to sell to Continental, which wanted a real presence in Washington," Christopher DeFrancisci said. "They're a truly full-line food company -- supplying everything from toilet paper to tomato sauce."
John Guerriero, president of the 50-year-old Baltimore family business, with annual sales exceeding $35 million, explains his company's purchase. "It was a perfect opportunity for us to cover the D.C. area. We got the wholesale portion at a good price, and Chris and Mike lend their expertise to us during the week." The company supplies virtually every well-known Italian restaurant in this area.
During the week, Walter McAdams, a DeFrancisci friend since high school, oversees Litteri's. "In a way, it's been easier only having the retail business. In order to keep supplying the wholesalers, it seems we were always robbing the retail end."
Saturday is the big day, and it is clear that Christopher and Michael DeFrancisci savor spending the day there. Their father died four years ago and his death prompted Christopher DeFrancisci to shift career plans. The St. John's College High School graduate studied literature and psychology at Villanova and George Washington, where he received a master's degree in social psychology. "Although I do have other interests, I love satisfying customers here. I don't intend to give this up. As owners of the business, Mike and I have a great responsibility."
Anna-Maria Comigani Carroll, 38, still chats with Uncle Thomas in Italian, as did her parents when she was a little girl. "I came here with my parents, and although they have passed away, I still come regularly. We are a real Italian family. I spend $45 to $100 every week on pasta, salami and Italian sausages. I buy great olive oil for cooking here.
"And at Thanksgiving and Christmas I'll spend up to $200." She added with a chuckle, "Trouble is, at holiday time, you can stand up to two hours back at the counter until your number comes up. But even that isn't bad. They give you samples of cheese and meat, and I can talk to people behind the counter in Italian."
Have things changed much through the years at Litteri's? "Not really," DeFrancis said. "Sure, we have a few items that we didn't have then, things that some of the younger people want -- feta cheese for example -- but overall, people are pretty much the same as they were many years ago."
George Cecchetti, a Navy program analyst who lives in Arlington, agrees, up to a point. "I started coming here in the '40s with my dad, and when relatives from Italy came to town, they couldn't wait to come down here. It was just like the old country. There is one difference now, however; you see a lot more younger, non-Italians in here."