When picking over mass-produced groceries at superstores begins to feel stale, a trip to a small, family-owned market is in order. The thrill of discovering a game-changing pantry stuffer — think a murky bottle of unfiltered olive oil from Sicily or a bright-orange jar of pickled mango sauce from Mumbai — justifies a small bump in your budget. Shelves packed with imported and artisan products spark curiosity, and owners are often eager to educate customers on the splendor of their cultures.
At these three local shops, you’ll want to arrive with an empty stomach. These tiny markets are quietly nailing a diverse array of dishes while offering some of the best lunch values around Washington.
Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe
In a backroom at the Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe in Alexandria, a bread oven spits fire. The gas flame inside the enormous machine — somewhere between the size of a pickup truck and a tank — rages upward of 600 degrees. Flat disks of dough quickly balloon into thin-crusted, bronze orbs as they move along the conveyor belt, making the bread soft and chewy.
The market offers a bounty of baked goods — meat, cheese and spinach pies; pistachio, almond and walnut baklava; cookies filled with jam — but the oven in the back makes only pita bread. It’s the driving force behind chef Abdalla Sawaf’s operation.
Sawaf, who grew up working in his father’s bakery in Jerusalem, claims the oven makes the best pita bread in the United States. When I taste a fresh round, it’s tough to disagree with him.
The pita finds its way into most of the menu in the cafe section: A refreshing fettoosh salad gets its crunch from pita chips tossed with an uplifting sprinkling of sumac. Specialty pizzas, baked in an Italian brick oven in the front, include such toppings as a cinnamon-tinged ground beef and onions and an addictive blend of za’atar (thyme, sumac and rich toasted sesame seeds).
The purest and — for my money — most delicious vehicles for Sawaf’s bread come from the vegetarian portion of the menu. I’ve been trying to decode the supremely light, citrus-heavy hummus for years. Sawaf says there’s no secret to it: The market sells enough to make it fresh every day. They never use canned beans, and every drop of cooking water is drained before the mix blends in an industrial-sized food processor. Ratios are precise and replicable. The baba ghanoush, specked with roasted eggplant skin, and the tabbouleh salad, bursting with lemon, are other highlights.
In 1983, Sawaf began working at the bakery and cafe while he was a 19-year-old studying civil engineering at George Washington University. He dropped out with one year left in his schooling. He realized then, as he does now, that bread is his life’s work.
352 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. Salads, dips, sandwiches and pizzas, $2.95-$8.98.
The Italian grocery A. Litteri has been located in the same Northeast Washington building — painted in a banner of red, white and green — since 1932. But once you walk inside, your eyes encounter bottles and cans of all colors: yellow and blue cylinders of whole tomatoes; more than 100 varieties of imported olive oil; and shelves upon shelves of preserved peppers, olives, mushrooms and artichokes.
The deli counter in the back is slammed at all hours. Dozens of black signs tacked on a wooden board list a range of cured meat that would bring tears to the eyes of a cold-cut cognoscente. All the sandwiches are served on rolls from the Catania Bakery in Northwest.
A standout hot option is a roll stuffed with housemade sausage and peppers. Course-ground black peppercorns and fennel seeds cut through the ground pork. The Classic Italian sub comes with capicola, genoa salami, mortadella and prosciuttini — a pepper-crusted ham — along with provolone, lettuce, tomato, onions, pepperoncini peppers and an herby vinaigrette. A triple wrapping of cellophane, thin parchment and sturdy white butcher paper makes the whole package ultra-transportable, which is critical, because there’s nowhere to sit down and eat on the premises.
517-519 Morse St. NE. alitteri.com. Sandwiches, $4.95 to $9.50.
When customers complain about the wait time at Hinata — orders can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour — the chef can appear indifferent. He will not be rushed, and his devotion to his craft is apparent once your order arrives, whether it’s for carryout or on a tray destined for the handful of small tables on-site. While you wait, sip a yuzu-flavored soda — like a Sprite but not as sweet — or peruse the wealth of rice, noodles and condiments for sale. (And good luck getting the chef’s story: All I could learn about the quiet man behind the counter was his first name, Waka.)
The regular chirashi bowl — 10 pieces of assorted sushi scattered on a bed of vinegar rice for $20 — is a work of art. A smooth, buttery diamond of salmon transports me back to the first time I sampled sushi. Kampyo, dried strips of Japanese squash rehydrated with a soy-and-sugar marinade, are silky and sweet like caramelized onions. A topping of green radish sprouts provide a peppery bite and bring out the red in the sliced tuna.
The impetus to open the market, which has been providing Japanese groceries and reasonably priced sushi in Bethesda for more than 20 years, was to give Japanese natives and dedicated travelers a place to find their favorite items from across the Pacific.
On a recent visit, I saw a woman double-park her minivan, then walk out minutes later with a 15-pound sack of rice attached to her hip. Clearly, the market’s mission gets accomplished on a daily basis.
4947 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda. Sushi and sashimi, $2.50 to $23.