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