Bound by the thoroughfare of New York Avenue, NE and by loping-along Florida Avenue, DC’s wholesale Capital City Market is a mishmash of meat wholesalers, bulk souvenir joints, remnants of the bustling produce market it once was, a cute-as-a-button former Little Tavern turned Subway (how sad),
and A. Litteri’s on Morse Street, parallel to Florida, more or less, and one short block north.
I left a piece of my heart on Morse Street. Worked there as the chef for a catering company in a former wholesale meatmarket – talk about a MAN-SIZE walk-in – around 1984. The market hood is still on the dicey side. In the 80’s it was rougher and harder scrabble – traveling by bicycle to and from I skirted potholes big enough to swallow Rhode Island and wolf whistles strong enough to blow you down.
Our business shared the space with a small pastry company, an acrimonious arrangement, the two owners in a headlock over god knows what, dividing the employees into rigid, silent-treatment camps. The radio played on our end of the room while soap operas hummed out of their flour-dusted television. Occasionally a volume war would swell. Swear to St. Dobosh there was a red line painted down the center of the room.
Spiritual renewal relied on tripping two doors down daily to Litteri’s for something essential. Switzerland beckoned at A Litteri’s. A person could breath there, huffing prosciutto perfume. One purchase at a time to ensure a visit du jour. Olive oil, provolone, loose sausage… I lingered, counting my change carefully.That was not the best stretch of my life, typical tangled, late 20’s life, not quite there yet, illegible map, and Litteri’s provided a vivid landmark. Vivid and stable. The store had aged to a constant state, perfectly patinaed.
I got through it. Not quite none the worse for wear, although close, and, BIG and, the memory of Litteri’s left a lingering good taste in my mouth.
Teddy and I stopped into Litteri’s yesterday, a good intention finally fulfilled, making the dog leg through the tall, compactly stacked wooden shelving to the deli counter in the back right. The stacks of my urban education.Warmly flirtatious, young and old alike, accommodating, working the slicer at an easy pace, the guys behind the counter used to chat with me while I waited. Although I did not recognize a face in the place now, 25 years later, the mien (Assuming a store can have a mien. I think it can.) has not changed.
“Whaddya say?”, said the counter man to my son, leaning over the top of the case. “Have you got a bathroom?” said Teddy. “Sure thing,” said the man, leading him to the back, passing under a plethora of signs, prefab and handscrawled, loud and clear, NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS DO NOT ASK.
While we waited for our meatball sub, 4 inches on a soft roll, for him, and a classic Italian, 9 inches on a hard roll (it is not a proper sub if the bread is not hard enough to cut you) for me, Teddy wandered around and took pictures. The free floating green olives with holes fascinated him. “Mom look, they are pitted, you could get some.”
When I was a market denizon my shop compatriots did not share my affinity for vinaigrette soaked subs at lunchtime. Tall, drawling Buddy from Newport in southeastern Virginia was in my care during the workday. A near indentured servant, he lived with my boss, the owner, a southeastern Virginia native as well, who perhaps paid Buddy and perhaps did not.
Sweet as sweet tea, and about as unhurried as the steeping of sun tea, Buddy drank coke, coke with sugar. Coke with added sugar that is, not “Passover coke“, as the stuff straight out of the can was not sweet enough for him. The sound of a stainless steel teaspoon tap tap tapping on the sides of a tall metal mixing cup, the sort used for mixing cocktails, told my ears where Buddy was, stir stir stirring his Coke before each sip, keeping the sugar suspended.
Reduced to eating in the car – cold day, not a bench or tree in sight – my son had the wherewithall to fasten his seat belt before unwrapping his mighty, mighty meatball sub. That thing was turbo charged and could knock a person sky high! Sauce and cheese galore!