18th Ave & 64th St, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
18th Avenue Bakery. For Italians, bread-making and pastry-making are separatee arts, so that a good pastry-maker is rarely a good bread-maker, and vice versa. I go to Villabate for desserts, but to 18th Avenue Bakery for biscotti—not the silly gourmet kind you pay $1.49 a piece for at chi-chi coffee bars, but the simple home-style every-day kind you buy by the pound and have with your morning coffee everyday. Besides these biscotti, 18th Ave. Bakery makes the best quaresimali I know, because they don't overdo the cinnamon—these traditional Neopolitan biscotti are called "Lenten" because they're made with eggs only, and not lard; the addition of both ground and chopped nuts to the flour makes them expensive, but worth every penny. They're hard and crunchy for dipping in coffee. This bakery also make the bread I grew up on, the standard bastone or batard made from white flour, shorter and fatter and with a much better proportion of crust to crumb than the baguette. 18th Avenue bread is neither too light nor too heavy and is both crunchy and tastey. Last time I was here, I also got a delicious home-style ricotta pie for Easter. 18th Ave. & 60th Street, Brooklyn.
Caesar's Wines & Liquors has a range of Everyday to Dinner-Party Italian wines of a breath and variety not easy to find. Lots of nice finds and values to be had here, and an accommodating staff besides. As for high-range wines, I would only buy what I am ready to drink, because bottles are shelved standing up instead of lying on on their sides; I haven't had a problem, but I'd be ready to go back and exchange a pricey bottle, if the wine were compromised by a dried out cork. I never pass up a chance to pick up a mixed case from Caesar's when I'm in Brooklyn!
Giolitti Delicatessen is part Italian deli, part Italian grocery, and part Italian wine shop. The offerings are limited, but very well selected and well priced. The owner is more than accommodating—sometimes I buy more than I need just because she's so nice about it. The deli offers such basics as mortadella, prosciutto, and capicolo, which the competent staff knows how to slice right-thin (if you ask), and standard cheeses, like Piave and Fontinella. They have such specialties as bread and sausage (albeit with fennel) from Baltimore, and little frozen sfogliatelle you can bake at home (or order baked from them). They also offer specialty Italian groceries at a fair price, such as savoiardi biscuits and mascarpone cheese to make tiramisu, and arborio rice to make risotto. It's just off Route 2 South, across from the new Fresh Fields at the old Parole Shopping complex: 2068 Sommerville Rd., Annapolis Towne Center.
Trader Joe's is my go-to for gourmet staples at proletarian prices. There are caveats, however. Quality is uneven, I'm selective. Then there are those sanguine youths that run the place. It is a law not only of nature but of all being, Gentle Reader, that everything loves its like. Well, the young love to change, which means they love change, which means they love to keep changing the location of things in the store and, much worse, to replace familiar things I've come to like with new ones I don't like. Having a middle-age affection for dependability, I don't like it, not at all. That said, I nonetheless depend on Trader Joe's for these select items: raw almonds (to toast for antipasto); the Sorrento Blend of arugula greens; the well-priced Baby Bella mushrooms; the mid-sized artichokes, when in season; cheeses (Castello blue; Iberico; aged Gouda; Parmigiano Reggiano, with as little rind and as much center as possible; Grana Padano; Parrano; Morbier); dried sausage for antipasto (Volpi Sopressata Salame; Trader Joe's Pinot Grigio Artisan Salami); Trader Giotto's Chocolate Almond Biscotti; Trader Giotto's Aged Balsamic Vinegar; Trader Joe's Spanish Extra Virgin olive oil, but only in a pinch; and no fewer than 4 packages at a time of Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with Whole Hazelnuts (Nature's very own anti-depressive).
A. Littieri Inc. is hidden in a warehouse district off Florida Avenue (accessible from driveway off N.Y. Avenue). It's a large Italian grocery store with all the staples and all at the best price you'll find in these parts. It's the place I'll buy pelati (Italian whole peeled tomatoes) by the case, olive oil by the gallon, maccheroni by the dozen, and sundry jars of imported capers, caper berries, tuna, saphron, anchovies, etc. There are also such standard offerings as common Italian cheeses, Italian bread and sausage (with fennel) from Baltimore, and a wide and varied range of affordable Italian wines. The owner is as decent and accommodating as can be. Go prepared to stock up: bring cash and make room in the trunk. 517-519 Morse St., N.E., Washington, D.C. (off Florida and N.Y. avenues).
Palate Pleasers is an oasis in a baker desert. The greater D.C. area has very little to hold a candle to Brooklyn bread or pastries, but this little chi-chi shop in the little Eastport shopping mall, not far past the bridge from Annapolis City Dock, offers some consolations to the exile. Chief among these is rustic-style Italian breads, worth the chi-chi price (and sometimes available frozen at half-price). Then there are the best scones I know—I never pass up the chance to buy one to gobble on the spot, and a bag of frozen ones to bring home. Other baked goods I've bought have satisfy with that deep down homey taste. I've never tried any of the appetizing looking gourmet take-out foods; they might well be worth the price, if you don't cook for yourself. I wouldn't know. :-)
Mills Fine Wine & Spirits is known for one of the finest collections of wines on the East Coast. Besides an impressive collection of high-end Italian wines, there is also a range of mid-range wines, and even some bargain carousels. For the most part, the Italian selections seem to me to be slanted toward the Francophilic palate, so the offerings are more of the sort to be well regarded by critics than interesting to Italophiles. Still, this is the place I'll blow my allowance on a choice bottle, when there's a sale, but also where I'll drop in to pick up a mixed (and discounted) case of everyday wines off the bargain carousel. The staff, fortunately, is not snobbish, but ready to help you find the sort of the thing you're looking for. This is the place I also pick up stuff like good sherry and creme de cassis. City Dock, Annapolis.
The Italian Market in Annapolis is a store I dislike, but I include it here anyway because I buy wine there now and again, however grudgingly, on Mondays. I dislike it because the prices are inflated, and I once had a dealing with the owner in which he proved untrustworthy. Still, among their other offerings, they have a remarkably wide, varied, and knowledgeable selection of Italian wines, not easily found elsewhere, in the mid-priced to high-priced range, and they have 20% off all wines on Mondays, which brings the prices down to fair. 126 Defense Highway, Annapolis.