Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Talking Italian With A. Litteri

It’s a dirty little secret of mine that I am now ready to confess:  I hate Italian food.  But wait.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am NOT talking about the Italian food of, say, that mad Italian genius from the Le Marche region, Fabbio Trabocchi of Fiola fame, who is not only revolutionizing Italian cuisine as we know it, but who has cooked some of the best food of any kind I have ever put in my mouth.  Nor am I talking about the kind of Italian food produced in the home kitchens of friends like Tom and Erica Petrilli, whose Italian dishes are so deeply delicious, and whose collaborative culinary prowess is so profoundly beyond my own, that tasting Tom’s red sauce makes me want to bang my head on the table, dent my soul, and cut a hole in my heart, because I know I will never, ever cook as well as Tom does, no matter how hard I try.  So maybe it’s not Italian food I hate, after all.  Maybe it’s that other stuff, the fake stuff, that basest and most low-brow culinary detritus that tries (and fails) to pass itself off as “Italian” food that I truly and deeply despise.  That stuff produced in the very non-Italian Sysco industrial faux-food processing facilities around the United States and later passed-off as “authentic” Italian cuisine by such Slobodan Milosevic-caliber gastro-war criminals as Bertucci’s, the Olive Garden, and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.  I know what you’re thinking:  Only an idiot with a culinary IQ of 6 would confuse Fabio’s cooking with the garbage that comes out of an Olive Garden kitchen.  Only a fuckwhit would fail to notice the shared gastronomic DNA of what comes out of an Old Spaghetti Factory kitchen with what comes out of a can of Chef Boyardee.  Agreed.  But where I’m from, the American Heartland (re:  “fly-over” states for you perennial coastal dwellers) the “authenticity” of these culinary shit holes is almost always without dispute.  In Iowa, in Kansas, in my native Missouri, the dross purveyed by the Macaroni Grill is Italian food for most people.  This means that for army of Midwestern eaters, Olive Garden’s fried fucking calamari is surely as authentically “Italian” as Fabio’s own and purely transcendent pine-smoked venison (with cipollini onions, foie gras, and rosemary, and likely the best venison dish anywhere in America, folks).  This also means that for a legion of farmbelt gastronomes-in-utero (as I was once) a Ragu red sauce-styled cuisine of laughable kiddie-food complexity (sugar, salt, and the occasional shot of dairy fat) is all they’ll quite possibly ever know of one of the world’s great and most sublime of cuisines. 


Unless Fate seizes them by the short hairs and drags them half way across the country to A. Litteri, Inc.—that Holy Roman epicenter of all Washington-area Italian groceries, that Caesarian godhead for all D.C.-area Italian sandwich shops, and that veritable Puzoian Paradise where all Italophiles go to have their livers fattened and their bellies distended on an almost pharmacological array of Italian victuals that no Brando-in-waiting could ever possibly refuse, nor any garden variety Scorsesean wanna-be could forego without being considered a total mook

Because these are some truly mean streets one must navigate to find Litteri.  Because Litteri is located in Northeast Washington’s Union Market, an utterly bombed out four-square-block warehouse and meat-packing district hosting African butchers, Chinese butchers, Halal butchers, and other shady-looking sundries and restaurant supply vendors where you’ll need a business license (or a cool pair of Andrew Jacksons) to enter.  Union Market appears as the kind of place one might visit when needing to purchase a handgun or healthy white baby (in the parlance of the Cohen brothers), or where a person might unburden himself of his own extra kidney or trade-in his poorly used liver for a new one.  Union Market is just that kind of place and it’s what A. Litteri, Inc. has called home (and where the dead mobsters have been buried) since 1926.  It feels like the Capone era inside Litteri.  It smells like it, too.  An olfactory amalgam of spices, pistol oil, and cured meat.  And that’s a good thing.  How so? 

Because to enter Litteri is to fall down a culinary rabbit hole and enter an Italian fairyland of Old World gastronomy.  It’s a Platonic repository of every Italian food ever made exists in its one perfect form.  Floor to ceiling, front to back, Litteri is jam-packed with every Italian foodstuff a hungry gourmand could possibly imagine.  At the very front of the store are cases of highly quaffable wines selling at low-low prices ($3 a bottle and no doubt freshly fallen off the back of a truck).  Beyond that is the olive oil display.  Doubled-sided shelving stretching half the length of the store and crowded with hundreds of brands of olive oil, from the stuff so rare and expensive as to have likely been “imported” inside a human body cavity on a commercial jet liner, to varieties of oil just pedestrian enough to double as lube for your contractor’s nail gun.  Behind the oil display is shelving (and fridge space) devoted entirely to pasta.  Litteri has stockpiled enough fresh, frozen, and dried pasta (in shapes I’d never before seen) to get a person or three through the next plague or apocalypse.  End-capping the oil and pasta displays are shelves devoted entirely to potted fish (sardines and tuna), to capers, to olives, to canned tomatoes, to spices.  It’s easily the most densely stocked market I’ve ever seen.  It’s dizzying in its variety.  Vexing in its bounty.  Overwhelming in its offering.  But none of it, none of it, is why I’ve come to A. Litteri, Inc.

I’ve come for what you’ll find in the very, very back of the store.  I’ve come for Litteri’s made-to-order sandwiches, which, as I’m about to discover, are some of the very, very best that Washington (and Italian-American street cuisine) has to offer.  But tread carefully around the deli counter.  Be smart.  There are rules here.  There is a protocol.  You don’t rush the old man behind the counter.  You don’t bark your order at some pimple-faced, purple-shirted “Sandwich Artist.”  You write down your request in pencil on a form stacked on the counter.  Then you write your name.  Because you are accountable.  Because you will be nice while ordering your sandwich.  Because they know your name and can likely find out where you live.  So you choose two meats for your sandwich (capicola and prosciuttini, in my case).  Then you choose your two cheeses (I go with provolone and fresh mozzarella).  Then you choose your toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, hot peppers) and condiments (Italian seasoning and dressing, yellow mustard, mayo).  You are then asked to make the most important decision of your sandwich eating experience; you are asked to choose your bread.  I go with the 9” hard roll (and so should you).  I say please and thank you while submitting my sandwich request.  I say it twice, and for my good manners, I am rewarded a nine-inch sandwich wrapped in white butcher’s paper.  I pay a very reasonable $5.95 and carry my sandwich, football-like, across pavement aglitter with broken glass, to the empty Subway parking lot directly across the street.  I sit on a short retaining wall next to a trash dumpster and tuck into what is surely among the best sandwiches of my life.  I bite at it.  I tear at it.  I rip and gnash.  And I know even then, even with a mouthful of prosciuttini and provolone, even with Italian dressing dribbling from my chin, that describing the perfect sandwich will be akin to describing the perfect sneeze in that both, sandwiches and sneezes, are so commonplace in life that describing an encounter with either would be tantamount to describing the properties of something truly banal—like a really good morning shower.  You’ll know it when you find it.  Oh yes you will.  But even as my powers of description fail me then (as they fail me now), I know that A. Litteri is where I will buy all of my sandwiches.  From now on.  For the rest of my time in Washington.  Because Taylor Gourmet is now dead to me.  Potbelly, a cruel, cruel joke.  A. Litteri, Inc has it all.  It’s a veritable Vatican City of culinary spirituality and material gastronomic wealth.  It’s where they’re keeping the good stuff.  It’s where I will from now go like some culinary pilgrim having once glimpsed heaven and hungry, very, very, for more. 

A. Litteri, Inc. is located at 517-519 Morse Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002

Their link is here:  Home Page A. Litteri, Inc.

You should also visit Fabbio at Fiola with someone you love or someone you desperately want to sleep with.  Fiola's link is here:  Home - Fiola Restaurant

And luckily, not everyone shares my opinion of Olive Garden.  Some people actually like it.  Here's Marilyn Hagerty's now-famous review in the Grand Forks Herald:  THE EATBEAT: Long-awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome | Grand Forks Herald | Grand Forks, North Dakota

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The (Un) Dangerous Taco of Pat's Market, Alexandria

It’s what American cities do best.  They change.  When they improve, we call it urban renewal.  Gentrification.  Gastronomic manifest destiny.  Whatever you call it, it first appears, innocuously enough, as the new corner Starbucks.  Then it transmogrifies into a hipster burger joint.  Then it shape-shifts into that Whole Foods built where the old A & P used to be.  And before you can say Kenny G., the entire neighborhood is swarming with white people.  Like it or not, that’s how gentrification works.  For those professionals able to afford such free-wheeling luxury, these newly minted cityscapes represent a fairyland of easy living.  What’s not to like about being able to score a pound of prosciutto, your own dry cleaning, and a cup of bubble tea in the space of one city block?  I, for one, will cop to it.  Guilty as charged.  Without a doubt.  Were I to live in such a neighborhood, I would certainly be that guy carrying a chai latte in one hand and my pet Chihuahua in the other.  Or, well, maybe not.

But what do we call it when this kind of renewal happens in reverse?  What do we call it when a brown person improves on what a white guy first tried?  What do we call it when a Salvadoran cook and entrepreneur buys a terribly rundown but long-cherished family marketplace in a traditionally all-white neighborhood (with a golf course across the street) and turns the place into one of the most unlikely and easily most delicious purveyors of Salvadoran food around?  I call it progress.  I call it Pat’s Market in Alexandria, Virginia, and Pat’s is exactly what culinary revitalization tastes like. 

I won’t kid you; imagining culinary excellence coming from a place like Pat’s takes more than creativity; it requires the kind of blind faith known only to sky-divers and bungee jumpers, and which tells them, against all reason, that everything is going be all right in the end.  That no one is going to get hurt.  Pat’s is more than down-at-the-heels and rough-around-the-edges.  It’s dangerous-looking.  The kind of place that looks to serve up complimentary sides of hepatitis and botulism with every order.  The kind of place that appears to have brought a third-world sensibility of safe-food-handling practices to compliment its third-world cuisine. 

But that first-take on Pat’s would be shortsighted.  Myopic.  For what the true gastronome sees when he enters Pat’s is not the shelves of potted meats, the hanging bags of pork rinds, the displays of LIVE BAIT.  No, what the real eater first spies is the Salvadoran couple behind the counter.  The el who is filling an old ketchup squeeze-bottle with salsa.  The ella who is swaddled in a white cooking apron and stands beside a four-burner range and a flat top grill.  Ah!  Food is cooked here, is the gourmand’s first epiphany.  What the savvy eater next essays is the menu printed on copier paper and taped to the counter like the report card of someone else’s honor student, someone else’s kid.  The hanging menu offers cheeseburgers, French fries, wings, pizza.  The menu is a red herring, a gastronomic sleight of hand, an expert exercise in culinary misdirection, is the gourmand’s second insight.  Something strange is afoot here.  Pat’s Market has my full and undivided attention.

So I ask the man behind the counter for something to eat.  Lunch is what I need.  The request makes him go all shifty-eyed, makes him nervous.  That or my short-hair/Ray Bay aviator approach to personal aesthetics which screams health inspector and la migra to guys like this everywhere.  The proprietor motions to the menu and suggests the cheese steak.  The cheese steak?   I tell him I work in the food business.  Not some pinche zapatero, but a careerist.  A lifer.  I tell him I won’t eat gringo food on my day off.  This makes him relax, visibly.  His shoulders fall forward and he lets out his breath.  I think I even detect a smile.  When the man suggests pupusas I know we’re destined for friendship, he and I.  When he suggests a tongue taco, I know it’s going to be a culinary love between us, real and true.  Such things happen when a perfect stranger reads the secret desires aflame in your soul.  And sometimes a tongue taco is all it takes.

But as with all young love, things can get really strange really quickly.  The proprietor comes around from behind the counter and walks to the very back corner of the store.  There, he enters a mid-century walk-in unit that looks like a bank vault, and once in, stays inside for a good seven minutes.  I know it’s a full seven minutes because the cook doesn’t speak English.  Because there’s no one else inside the store.  And because I take out my iPhone (that requisite douchewear accessory of foodies everywhere) and seek an app designed to somehow defeat awkward situations such as this.  Just as I thought:  there is no app for that. 

The proprietor emerges with two metal mixing bowls filled with meat.   The cubed tongue in one hand.  A bowl of diced flank steak in the other.  He passes by me without a word and once behind the counter, begins to season and toss the meat with his bare hands.  The woman warms the pupusas and tortillas on the grill, and once brown at the edges, removes the starches to make room for the meat.  And in what feels like just seven exhilarating seconds, I am presented with two styrofoam clamshells full of what smells like really good Salvadoran food and for which I am charged a pittance (two tacos, two pupusas and Mexican Coke for well under ten dollars).

I smile, pay, and abscond to a nearby park where I plan to eat what I hope might be, at best, barely-eatable Salvadoran food consumed in the warm sunshine of a late-winter’s day.  At the very least, I hope to be full at meal’s end.  And if I am to get my greatest wish, if there is an Easter Bunny after all, the food will not make me sick. 

What I discover on my first, second, even third sorties into my two clamshells is something approaching short-order genius and nothing short of the best Salvadoran food I have yet tasted.  The pupusas are rich, almost springy and fresh tasting (most unusual for pupusas).  They are paired, in their clamshell, with two dollops of fresh slaw, topped with salsa, whose flavors are shocking in their brightness and freshness.  I am thunderstruck.  I am also confused by flavors this vivid in Central American cooking.  So I move on to the tacos.  Temples of my familiar.  My favorite go-to meal and something I can happily eat every day of my life.

The beef taco is rich in flavor, vibrant, grassy, highly seasoned and, somehow, altogether familiar tasting.  The tongue is, simply put, the best tongue taco I’ve ever tasted insofar as the flavors are spot-on and that it is more of a melting process (as opposed to the regular seven-chews-per-bite gringo mastication routine) that delivers the tongue down my gullet.  The tacos are made of the freshest tortillas I ever recall eating.  And the pico de gallo that comes in the clamshell—fresh enough to be called bombastic.  I pick it apart to discover a rough and irregular dicing of the tomatoes and onions that delivers the most significant epiphany of the day:  this food is homemade.

So I do something I’ve never done before.  Something foolish.  I go back.  I get in my car and drive back to Pat’s Markets.  I want an explanation.  I want an answer to a single question:  how can their food be this fucking good?  The couple behind the counter does not look happy to see me again.  Have I come back to bust them on the internal serving temperature of their flank steak?  Or have I come back to avenge the bone in my throat?  The same gringo in the space of half and hour surely means bad, bad things are about to happen.  Things involving knife fighting and deportation.  So I smile and offer my business card and try to put them at ease with assurances that their food is, in my opinion, easily the best Salvadoran fare in the area.  They already know this.  But saying so puts the proprietor at ease.  Introductions are made.  His name is Manuel, hers Janira.  They purchased the already-distressed Pat’s Market six-years before from an Indian family, all Hindu and vegetarian, who sold (but never ate) high-end deli meat (the market was built in 1960 and named for the long-dead original owner’s still-living wife).  Manual does a respectable business selling traditional Salvadoran food to always-ravenous Latino laborers, breakfast and lunch.  The menu taped to the counter is for the benefit of stray gringos who wander into Pat’s without fully understanding that the United States end in the parking lot outside.  Inside Pat’s, they’re in El Salvador, no two ways about it.  You're off the reservation, pal.  

But the food, I ask Manuel, how do you do itHow do you make it taste like that?

Manuel’s answer to my first question does not surprise me:  everything is made in-house at Pat’s; the slaw, the pico de gallo, the tortillas, even the pizza, all made fresh, daily, by hand, by the lovely Janira.  It’s Manuel’s answer to the second part of my question that catches me totally off guard.  It shocks me.  Manuel tells me the secret ingredients in the pupusas are the two cheeses Janira uses—mozzarella and provolone.  Then Manuel leans in closer and imparts the holy trinity of seasoning used in Janira’s beef tacos:  French’s yellow mustard, mayonnaise, and Italian salad dressing.

My first impulse is to bolt.  I’ve been had.  Taken for a sucker.  Played for the kind of gringo fool who can’t tell the difference between authentic Salvadoran food and gastronomic hocus-pocus.  But one hard look at Manuel convinces me otherwise.  Here is this sweet little man who came from profound third-world poverty with no money, no English—just the dream of taking some ruined old gringo grocery and piloting that leaky old thing toward culinary greatness.  One hard look at Manuel reminds me to ask myself on just what third-world gastronomy is based, after all.  Third-world cuisine is about taking whatever ingredients are at hand, be they queso fresco or provolone, alguashte or French’s yellow mustard, and making the most delicious food possible.  So the very impulse that drives Manuel and Janira to season their food with North American condiments is exactly what make their Salvadoran tacos and pupusas authentic.

Manuel and I shake hands as I am leaving.  He tells me he hopes I will return for more tacos.  Come back for the best and most authentic Salvadoran food I’ve yet had the pleasure to taste?  Of course I will.  Because Pat’s continues the heritage of culinary revitalization of America.  Because it’s what the future tastes like.  Because it’s deeply and truly delicious.

Pat’s Market is located at 1401 Belle Haven Road, Alexandria, Virginia, 22307.

I can’t wait to see you there.

[Reader's note:  word on the street is that Pat's has closed.  Bummer.]