Remember how good things were back in the day? Cars were cooler, people tougher, rents cheaper. Cities were grittier and more stylish. I often scan our small cityscape for vestiges of the past. For block parties, overturned buckets being played in the park, fountains turned kiddy pools, crowded corner stores and half-smokes. In a new DC, I love to hunt nostalgia. And over an Italian sub sandwich last week, I asked myself this: is there anything more nostalgic that an old-school deli?
The smell of olive oil and cured meats. Wall-to-wall shelving with canned and pickled products. The sound of the deli man yelling “who’s next!?” Bygone times, people, bygone times. Unless you know these DC originals: A. Litteri (NoMa), Vace (Cleveland Park) and Prego (Capitol Hill).
We will likely get an Eataly DC soon, an addition that I will welcome with childlike glee. But before Eataly seduces us all with it’s obscenely delicious procurements, educate yourself on the city’s old mainstays—and have a cannoli.
A. Litteri was founded in 1926 by Mariano DeFrancisci and, the shop’s namesake, Antonio Litteri. The original location was at 6th and G Streets NW. In 1932, it moved to 517 Morse Street NE, where it still stands, across the street from Union Market. You don’t need to enter the store to know that this place is a throwback. The street feels like NYC’s meatpacking district circa 1920, surrounded by warehouses, delivery trucks and nondescript storefronts. A. Litteri is the exception with a Italian flag painted facade.
Inside, packed shelves tower with olives and oils, risottos and sauces, and the blues play on the store speakers. The food selection is vast and includes American standbys and straight-from-The –Boot specialties. They’ve also got store-made pastas and pasta sauces and one wonderful deli counter. Last Tuesday, I arrived just at the start of the lunch rush, which included teenagers and deliverymen, old ladies and yuppies. I ordered the Italian sub, adding mortadella, prosciutto and soppressata to a mash up of fixins. But you can order straight off the menu, too, with sammys like eggplant or veal parmigiana, buffalo chicken, meatball with provalone, steak and cheese, and tuna salad.
Visit A. Litteri at 517-519 Morse Street NE or online, here. You can also call them at 202-544-0183.
Vace Italian Deli
Vace is a different brand of nostalgia. Located at the southern end of Cleveland Park’s commercial strip, it’s more 1980s (it was founded by Blanca and Valerio Calcagno in 1976) than 1920s, with decorations like a faded photo of a spaghetti-covered baby and faux hanging bologna. It’s glorious, and it makes me feel like a kid again.
On the left side of the store, shelves are stocked with pastas, sauces, oils, pannetone, candied fruits and coffees—most of which you probably won’t find in your average grocery store. On the right side of the store is the deli counter, showcasing everything from pates and imported cheeses to buckets of sardines and chorizos. Both hot and cold subs are on the menu.
What I like most about Vace is how much they make in house: more than 60 items, including fresh mozzarella (made daily), pizza by the slice (for just $2) and cured sausages. They’ve also got a bunch of made to order items, like sfogliatella, a pastry made with thin layers of dough and sweet ricotta cheese; and cannoli, which I ate standing on the street just in front of the shop. Delicious.
Visit Vace Italian Deli online, here, or visit the store at 3315 Connecticut Ave NW. Vace also has a second location in Bethesda at 4705 Miller Ave.
Prego is located at Eastern Market and, as a Capitol Hill kid, holds for me a personal nostalgia. It may not look like much from the outside, but their deli sandwiches are great.
On the shelves, you’ll find De Cecco pasta, ketchup and mustard, marinated artichokes and hot sauce–more American than Italian. Behind the counter is where the magic happens. Breakfast includes variations on meat, egg and cheese sandwiches—which is hangover gold and surprisingly hard to find around the city. And lunch includes veal parmigiana, the Prego club, meatball subs (personal favorite), shrimp salad sandwiches, steak and cheese, and a variety of Italian meat subs. Best of all, none of them will cost you more than $6.50.
Visit Prego online, here, or at 210 7th ST SE, at the north end of Eastern Market.