Must Haves: Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue Roast Pork Sandwich

Must Haves is a new series focusing on some of D.C.'s great dishes.

I'm obsessed with this sandwich. Absolutely and completely obsessed. I had it for the first time three weeks ago. I've had it three times since. I've told my friends about it. I've told my family. It motivated me to get on with this new series of dining shorts and it will be the inaugural one.

DSCN5273 Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue roast pork sandwich is unequivocally one of the very best sandwiches I've had in D.C., maybe anywhere. It's six to 12 inches of roasted pork wet with the stock they soak it in, tucked into a warm hoagie roll with chunks of garlic and covered in melted provolone. As fantastic as all that is -- and it is -- that's not what makes the sandwich. Oh no, what makes the sandwich is the broccoli rabe.

Broccoli fucking rabe.

There are three other pork sandwiches on Taylor Gourmet's menu. None are as good as the Pattison Avenue. The only reason I can think of is that none of the other sandwiches include bright green shoots of spicy broccoli rabe.  

Driving home after eating one of these was the worst. It was also the best. Try as I did to wash my hands afterward, my knuckles and fingers still stank of pork and stock that soaked through the bread. It always soaks through the bread. It was intoxicating. I felt I owed my wife some sort of apology. It was as close to filthy sin as a sandwich will ever get you.

If it was sin, then this is my confession. I am obsessed.

The Italian Store: Mangia!

Img_5120_2 A few months ago, I wrote about A. Litteri, a traditional Italian grocery store hidden among the warehouses of Northeast DC.  I praised its sandwiches, its deli counter, and its wide variety of Italian packaged goods.  Hopefully you've taken my advice and checked it out by now.

If you liked Litteri but found its hours inconvenient or its cluttered interior less than welcoming, then I would encourage you to check out The Italian Store, on Lee Highway in Arlington.  For almost thirty years now, The Italian Store has been bringing the same old-school vibe to Virginia in a brighter, more open space - one of the shops in a strip mall that also houses a Giant, a Starbucks and Wasabi-Sito.

Img_5121The Italian Store was opened by the Tramonte family in 1980, and they have been serving up delicious Italian subs as well as New York style pizza by the pie and the slice ever since.  To order a sandwich, guests take a number at the deli counter (which also offers a range of traditional deli meats and cheeses available by the pound).  When your number is called, you place your order from a list of eight "Philly style" sandwiches named after Italian destinations (the exceptions are the Muffuletta, which is a faithful recreation of the New Orleans delicacy, and the Philly).  Sandwiches come on hard or soft rolls with peppers, lettuce, tomato, onions, oregano and Italian dressing as standard condiments.  Prices for halves run either $6.69 or $6.99, and whole sandwiches are only a dollar more.

Img_5124If you want to skip the line, you can fax your order in ahead of time.  Or, if you'd simply prefer a slice, you can move to the back of the store and place an order at the pizza counter.   There you can choose from seven options that are available by the slice at all times, including a white pizza, a suprema, and even a pizza topped with chopped chicken breast.  Prices are a bit steep for a slice, ranging from $2.75 for plain to $3.99 for the suprema, but the portions they offer are enough to satisfy most appetites at lunch time.  If you want to satisfy multiple appetites, whole pies run $14.99 to $20.99 for a 16" large.

Img_5123_2Like Litteri, The Italian Store also serves as a terrific source for Italian specialty products, though their selection is more limited.  Chalk it up to editing or a desire to avoid overwhelming its customers, but The Italian Store limits itself to a handful of choices in each category, from pastas to cookies to Italian wines.  They still have the sorts of products that you are less likely to find in the typical grocery store (like the nearby Giant), but they may not have exactly the brand that your Grandma swore by.  Prices are competitive, with decent wines as low as $9.99.

Along the back wall, you'll find a row of refrigerator and freezer cases stocking some true standouts - a wide range of fresh and filled pastas from some of the best producers on the east coast, sauces made in-house, and even some traditional Italian entrees for those evenings when cooking just doesn't appeal.

When it comes to authentic Italian in Arlington, there aren't a lot of options.  Thankfully, this is one.  The Italian Store provides a great selection in a store that is at once traditional and up-to-date.  They may not boast seventy years in the same location yet, but their approach to their customers and their heritage is such that it's only a matter of time.

The Italian Store
3123 Lee Highway (in the
Arlington, VA  22201
(703) 528-6266
Monday-Friday 10 AM - 9 PM
Saturday 10 AM - 8 PM
Sunday 11 AM - 6 PM

A. Litteri, Inc. - Home of Italian Products

Img_3943 Since 1932, Washingtonians have been able to get a true taste of Italy at A. Litteri in Near Northeast, tucked away among the warehouses of the Florida Market that lies between New York Ave. and Florida Ave. near Gallaudet University.  Whether it's authentic balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta from Baltimore's Little Italy or mozzarella di bufala campana, you can find almost anything you're looking for in this off-the-beaten-path delicatessen.  And although it is not primarily a cheese shop (as my previous features have been), owner Mike DeFrancisci and his family pride themselves on carrying only the best and the freshest cheeses that Italy (and the rest of the world) have to offer.  When I'm looking for aged pecorino or fresh mozzarella, I know I can find it at Litteri's.

A true tour of A. Litteri must begin with directions - it's not the kind of place you'll stumble upon otherwise.  Located at 517 and 519 Morse St., NE, Litteri can be reached by taking 6th Street north from H Street, NE.  When you come to Gallaudet University at Florida Avenue, you will want to take your next left - onto the 500 block of Morse.  Parking is scarce (especially on Saturdays when one of the biggest flea markets in the city takes over a nearby parking lot), so be prepared to walk a bit.  Alternatively, you can take the Red Line to the New York Avenue Metro stop and then head east a few blocks, but the walk to Litteri is less than picturesque.  The red and green vertical stripes outside the green door announce your arrival.

Img_3945 Step inside the door for the first time, and you're likely to need a moment.  Immediately on your right, cases of wine are stacked six feet and higher, and signs trumpet prices as low as $3.99 for a bottle of Italian wine.  A mild feeling of claustrophobia can set in as you make your way toward a refrigerated case full of bottled soda, deli pickles and pre-made Italian sandwiches (made fresh each morning on hard and soft hoagie rolls).  Everywhere you look, your eyes are greeted by stacks of canned, bottled and packaged items from traditional Italian-American retailers like Cento, Sons of Italy, and De Cecco.  But in and among these items that can be found at most grocery stores are true gems that reflect Litteri's 80+ years of service (the original was opened downtown by DeFrancisci's great-uncle and grandfather in 1926) as a conduit for Italian staples: dried porcini mushrooms, arborio rice (for risotto) and desserts whose labels contain only a few words in English.

What appears to be a daunting and somewhat haphazard layout eventually resolves itself into a fairly well-organized floorplan: wine takes up a good portion of the front of the store, followed by spices and dry pasta along the right-hand wall.  The left wall is taken up with refrigerators and freezer cases containing fresh-made pasta from Frank Vellegia's Casa di Pasta in Baltimore, hand-tossed pizza dough, and packaged fresh cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, etc.).  Down the middle of the store two large shelves offer a dizzying array of olive oils, vinegars made from almost any fruit you can think of, jarred pasta sauces (for those who don't have the time or the energy to make their own 'gravy' from scratch) and canned goods.

Img_3944 If the layout of the store didn't serve to draw customers to the rear, the deli counter that runs along the entire back wall would easily do the trick.  Even from the front of the store you can see the hanging salamis and prosciutti beckoning you.  The view continues to improve as you approach the counter, with hand-linked sausage and stuffed vinegar peppers on display in a glass case that is full of Italian-American delicacies like baccala (salted cod) and soppresata (a pork salumi that has large chunks of fat throughout).  The men who work behind the counter have done so for years, and this is reflected in the easy, ongoing conversations they share with regular customers.  They are quick to offer samples of anything from an obscure salume like mortadella to an everyday provolone, and their recommendations have always served me well.

The counter is the heart of A. Litteri - in addition to the cold cuts and cheeses that they slice to order, visitors can also purchase a wide variety of Italian accompaniments by weight - assorted cured olives, sweet and hot peppers, pine nuts, grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt-packed capers all sit ready and waiting behind the counter in large containers.Img_3949_2  And it is here at the counter that customers can have sandwiches made to order.

These are not your ordinary, run of the mill sandwiches.  They are possibly the best deli sandwiches I have found since coming to Washington more than a decade ago.  The meatball and sausage sandwiches remind me of the ones I enjoyed with my family on weekends while I was growing up in New Jersey, and the cold cut options go far beyond those of most sandwich shops.  Additionally, this is the only place I have ever found to offer fresh mozzarella as a choice of cheese for your sandwich without any sort of upcharge.  The freshness of the bread and the rich flavors of the various condiments make for a great taste at a reasonable price - a loaded sandwich on a soft roll can be had for less than $5.

If you have ever visited the Italian Store in Arlington and fallen in love with their Old World charm, I encourage you to visit A. Litteri for the genuine article.  To make the trip even more worth your while, take some time to explore the Florida Market (the nearby warehouses and wholesale food vendors in the area).  Though more than a year old, this article from the Washington Post offers some great tips on places worth checking out.  Just make sure to plan your visit for a time when Litteri is open - they close at 3 PM on Saturdays and are closed all day on Sundays.

A. Litteri, Inc.
517 & 519 Morse Street, NE
7th & C Streets, SE
(202) 544-0184
Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 AM - 4 PM
Thursday and Friday, 8 AM - 5 PM
Saturday, 8 AM - 3 PM
Closed Sunday and Monday

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana

Packaging Like most Americans, I grew up knowing three kinds of mozzarella: shredded (for use on English muffin pizzas), low-moisture blocks (for dicing and using in lasagna and other baked dishes), and Polly-O String Cheese (for use in school lunches).  It wasn't until later that I learned about fresh mozzarella - with its soft texture and its slightly salty tang, it was like a completely different cheese.  But this revelation was just a first step, and the "fresh" mozzarella I was enjoying still came from large producers like Polly-O and Belgioioso.  I had yet to try mozzarella in its purest and most delicious form:  mozzarella di bufala campana (buffalo mozzarella).

Buffalo mozzarella is a fresh cheese made from the milk of water buffalo (not the American bison many people visualize when they hear 'buffalo').  When made by hand, the process involves finely chopping the curd from buffalo milk, immersing it in hot water (to stiffen the curd), kneading the stiffened curd and separating it into individual balls.  These balls are then soaked in brine (to absorb salt to help the cheese maintain its texture), and then stored in their own whey to preserve them for up to 24 hours.  This production method can be traced back to at least the twelfth century, and it results in a cheese that is at once creamy and tangy, soft and chewy.

Eager to compare mozzarella di bufala side by side with cow's milk mozzarella, I bought both along withExteriors  some prosciutto di Parma from A. Litteri, a tiny warehouse of a store in Northeast DC nearby to H Street and Gallaudet University.  Litteri is the real deal - a more authentic version of the Italian Store in Arlington.  They carry a wide range of imported Italian food items, a variety of wines at some very competitive price points, and selection of fresh-frozen pastas and sauces.  But they are best known for their deli counter, which features a great variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and delicacies like stuffed peppers, assorted olives and salt-packed capers.  They also offer some of the best made-to-order sandwiches available in the city.  But I digress.

I returned home with my purchases and began my examination.  At first glance, the two seemed quite similar - despite the differences in their sizes, the balls had similar colors and external textures.  But there were two things that struck me about the mozzarella di bufala: it had significantly more irregularity along its surface, showing numerous strands of curd where the cow's milk mozzarella was largely smooth; and it felt softer when pressed, as though it were holding in quite a bit of liquid.

Interior I then proceeded to cut the two mozzarellas in half, so I could take a look at their interiors.  The differences between the two cheeses were more readily apparent at this point.  The knife slid through the mozzarella di bufala with minimal resistance, and the cheese immediately began to release its moisture.  As I had felt, there was quite a bit of whey stored within the cheese.  In addition to their different moisture contents, the cheeses presented very different cross-sections.  The buffalo mozzarella looked as though it were made from layered strands of curd that had been pressed together, while the cow's milk mozzarella gave a much more solid and uniform appearance.  It held its shape better and required more force to slice through it without flattening it in the process.

PlateFinally, I moved on to taste.  I plated the two cheeses on either side of my prosciutto and noticed again  the difference in texture and moisture (the mozzarella di bufala is on the left in the picture to the right).  Then I took a bite from one of the slices of mozzarella di bufala, and I was stunned.  I am a big fan of insalata caprese, a simple 'salad' of fresh basil, sliced tomatoes and mozarella drizzled in olive oil, but I often find that I need to add salt and pepper to fresh cow's milk mozzarella to give it any flavor beyond a fresh, light cheese taste.  The buffalo mozzarella made it immediately clear that no such seasoning was necessary - it already boasted a salty tang that lingered even after the slice had all but melted away in my mouth.  The wet texture and the freshness of the curds allowed them to dissolve quickly as I was chewing, something I had never experienced with fresh cow's milk mozzarella.  This was mozzarella taken to an entirely different level.

A. Litteri's sells mozzarella di bufala campana in 250g (~8.5 ounces) balls for $8.99, but it is widely available in cheese shops, specialty stores and even grocery stores like Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's at a variety of price points.  I would encourage you to think carefully about where you buy, however, as buffalo mozzarella is at its best very soon after it is made.  If it has been sitting on a grocery store shelf for a week or more, its quality is very likely to suffer.  This is a cheese best enjoyed as soon as possible, and your best bet for fresh mozzarella di bufala is a cheese shop or a trusted deli counter.  Enjoy!

The Italian Store

Italian_store_slice_1I want to thank everyone that emailed me about The Italian Store in Arlington, VA. I finally stopped by last Sunday and I have to say it's probably some of the best NY-style pizza in the area. Well actually, I wouldn't quite classify it as NY style -- It's more like a cross between New Haven style and NY style, with a crust the thickness of New Haven style and the cheese and sauce quantities of NY style.

The dough that the crust was made from was quite flavorful. As I tasted it, my thoughts quickly reverted back to my childhood, eating slices of pizza at the Naugatuck Valley Mall in Waterbury, CT. Sauce was scant, and IMHO, there could have been a little more, but I don't think the lack of sauce detracted that much from the flavor.

All Amy and I had were a couple plain cheese slices each, so I don't know how fresh their toppings are. But seriously, when you're eating this type of pizza, you're not looking for gourmet toppings like morel mushrooms or local spring onions. You just want some sauce, some greasy cheese and maybe one topping or two -- pepperoni, sausage...anchovies. Keep it simple stupid.

If you're looking for a place to sit down, you don't want to go to The Italian Store. The only places to sit are five or six tables outside and you'll be lucky to find a place to sit during prime time.  There's a Starbucks next store as well so you can squat in on of their tables if your brave.

Other than pizza, The Italian Store is an Italian grocer and deli. You can order subs and deli meats or shop in the aisles for some gourmet imported Italian pasta or some pre-made pasta dishes for your lunches this week. Amy had the spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed shells and cheese and spaghetti bolognese for lunch this week and found all of them to be quite good.

So far, I'd say The Italian Store is some of the best NY-Style I've tasted in the area, although I still haven't made it over to Radius Pizza in Mt. Pleasant, so I will reserve any final judgements until I've been over there. Also, the last few pizzas I've had from Vace in Cleveland Park have been overcooked so I've dropped them down a notch.

The Italian Store
3123 Lee Hwy
Arlington, VA 22201
(703) 528-6266