- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sorely missing in Washington is a Little Italy where hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants compete to sell cheap pecorino and Chianti and offer the best no-fuss pizzas, subs and pastas.

Alas, Italophiles here have to try a little harder. It’s not as simple as going to one area of the city to find our favorite flavors and treasured textures. We have to look and then look again, and we still might miss them.

Such is the case with A. Litteri Inc., a store that since 1932 has offered Italian groceries in Northeast Washington. It is so inconspicuous that unless someone in the know leads you by the hand, you could miss it.

Litteri is among the warehouses of the Florida Market near Gallaudet University. Its storefront? A metal door. Not exactly inviting, but once you’ have been inside this packed-to-the-ceiling store, none of that will matter because Litteri sells some wines for $2.99 per bottle and 1 liter of unfiltered Paesano extra-virgin olive oil for $15.99.

Oh, and you can get a two-pack of ready-made pizza crusts for $2.99. Big-box grocery stores will sell you one crust - of lesser quality - for $4.99.

So when we say “Italian deli,” it refers to flavor and quality, not price. Many of A. Litteri’s products are offered at prices below those of regular grocery stores, and the store features often-lauded Italian name brands including Fiorucci, Bellino and Modena.

This also holds true for other family-owned Italian delis in the area, such as the Italian Store in Arlington and Vace in Cleveland Park and Bethesda, where fresh lasagna to go to feed four is $12 and fresh pasta dough for one large or several small pizzas to bake in your oven at home is $2.75. Ready-made sauce to go with the pizza dough costs $2.

Once you discover the high quality and low price of these gems, the only reason to go to a large chain grocery store for anything Italian - sometimes even Italian-like - could be convenience.

“We have people who come to our store from Virginia Beach and Williamsburg,” says Mike DeFrancisci, third-generation owner of A. Litteri. “And we ship to old clients who have moved away.”

Needless to say, Litteri doesn’t advertise.

These Italian grocery stores don’t stop at great olive oils and cheap wines. They also specialize in delicious, moderately priced deli sandwiches that sell like gelato on a hot day.

“The subs are a very important part of our business,” Mr. DeFrancisci says during a recent lunch hour as a dozen customers wait for their sandwiches at the deli counter. Hanging over the counter are hams and sausages. “We have a lot of regulars,” he says.

The service and price are right. The $4.95 Litteri Italian sub is the most popular, and at 9 inches and packed with capicola, Genoa salami, mortadella, prosciuttini, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and Italian dressing, it might be enough for two meals.

At Vace, the sub menu offers varieties ranging from $5.25 to $7; at the Italian Store, subs sell for $6.19 to $8.19.

Fantastico, no doubt - but this is a review, after all. What can we pick on?

Seating. Many of the delis have little or no seating.

“That’s always been my mother’s dream - to have outside seating,” says Mr. DeFrancisci, whose mother, Gerry, 81, is a frequent worker at the store. “But this is just not the place for that,” he adds, referring to the area’s wholesale warehouses and truck traffic.

It is the place, perhaps, for the best Italian sub in town. Because it’s summer, how about a picnic in the park, by the river or in the back yard?

***

A. Litteri Inc., 517-519 Morse St. NE; www.litteris.com, 202/544-0183; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, until 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and until 3 p.m. Saturday

Vace, 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW; www.vaceitaliandeli.com, 202/363-1999; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and to 8 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda, 301/654-6367; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, until 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

The Italian Store, 3123 Lee Highway, Arlington; www.italianstore.com, 703/528-6266; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Mangialardos, 1317 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202/543-6212; 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; cash only.

n Cornucopia, 8012 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301/652-1625; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

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