In a city that was derided for decades for having no culinary soul, yet is now considered at the top of the food chain, Washington has housed a bustling food industry since its founding, now inspiring a new generation of chefs. It’s no surprise that two examples of this evolution can be found in such close proximity.
The first is A. Litteri (517-519 Morse St., N.E.), an Italian market that got its start near D.C.’s Chinatown in 1926 before moving to its present location in 1932. For many longtime D.C. residents, including transplants from other cities where such emporiums are woven into the fabric of the community, it represents a connection with Old World food traditions without any fuss. Tucked into one of the unassuming old warehouses adjacent to Union Market’s parking lot, A. Litteri sports floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with Italian pastas in all shapes and sizes, jars of olives, peppers and anchovies, every kind of olive oil and a particularly well-stocked selection of wines.
In fact, the wine selection is so good that earlier this year the store was named the best wine store in the world outside of Italy by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany, an honor that is directly due to the efforts of Ken Nankervis, who started revamping A. Litteri’s wine offerings five years ago. You’ll find a hefty selection from regions across Italy, including grapes that may be unfamiliar to many Americans, such as a red Ligurian barbarossa or falanghina, a white varietal from Campania. Stop by on Saturday and you’ll usually find a wine tasting in progress, often matched with meat or cheese from the deli counter; while you’re there, Nankervis can steer you toward whichever wine will best complement your weekend meals, based on both your price point and the ingredients in your shopping basket.
Head to the back corner of the store and you’ll find its renowned deli counter. New York Times journalist David Brooks recently raised hackles among readers by recounting a tale of what he termed as his “insensitivity” in taking a friend with “only a high school degree” to lunch at a gourmet sandwich shop featuring such items as soppressata and capicollo, deli meats that apparently were unfamiliar to her.
However, many people without college degrees are actually quite familiar with Italian cold cuts and cheeses and you’ll find plenty in evidence at A. Litteri, from mortadella, a pork-based sausage often studded with whole black peppercorns, myrtle berries and pistachios, to pecorino pepato, a Sicilian aged sheep’s milk cheese. If the items displayed in the deli case are unfamiliar, then you’ll find knowledgeable employees ready to expand your culinary horizons, one slice at a time.
Representing the newest iteration of the Italian-American influence in this northeast D.C. neighborhood is Masseria (1340 4th St., N.E.). In the Puglia region — in the heel of the boot of southern Italy — a “masseria” refers to a country estate housing a working farm that produces olive oil, wine or other agricultural goods, and it’s a term that has meaning to chef-owner NIck Stefanelli, finding inspiration in the land of his ancestors as well as in the D.C. suburbs where he grew up.
Awarded with a coveted Michelin star in 2016, just a year after opening its doors, Masseria, like A. Litteri, also boasts an understated exterior; it would be easy to miss it, but once you enter the courtyard, you’ll find yourself transported to a world that feels slightly removed from reality. The sounds of the city fade away as you sip a cocktail at the expansive marble-topped, indoor-outdoor bar — it’s actually so wide that it precludes having a cozy chat with the bartender, but Masseria is, perhaps, focused on guests chatting with each other, in the best tradition of fine dining establishments.
Sitting at the bar is an excellent way to spend an evening, sipping on cocktails made with beet-infused Campari or accented with apricot and hibiscus sorbet while filling up on freshly fried bombolini stuffed with cheese fonduta and dusted with powdered mushroom or duck wings with a citrus and chili marmalade. If you prefer table service, the rustic-chic vibe of the dining room anchored by an open kitchen provides enough intimacy for a quiet tête-à-tête with a friend, as well as ample vibrancy for a celebratory birthday dinner with a group.
Let your server be your guide, steering you toward the kitchen’s seasonal offerings and traditional techniques, from foie gras with fresh blueberry to burnt wheat orecchiette — in which the pasta flour is lightly scorched before being made into pasta — served simply, but elegantly, with fresh cherry tomatoes, lightly bitter rapini and shavings of pecorino. Pastry chef Jemil Gadea, who was just awarded Pastry Chef of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, offers stylish and inventive dolci, which might include a rich baked chocolate mousse accompanied by dulce de leche or a fresh sorbet nestled in a bed of edible flowers.
Whether it’s old school or a new tradition, the Italian story is still alive and well in Northeast D.C., offering hospitality and culinary delights, for all occasions and budgets. As wise Italians will often say: Mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare — eat to live, don’t live to eat.