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Monday, June 30, 2003 02:33 pm

Viva Italia!

Local groceries offer taste of Italy

One step inside Angela's, A Taste of Italy, and you feel a bit transported. In between dishing out stuffed peppers or slicing proscuitto from the glass case in the front of the two-room brick bungalow on MacArthur, owner Angela Fileccia Lichtenberger answers customer's questions in her thick Italian accent. She chats with regulars about their families, while bragging about her own new grandson.

The tiny store features large chunks of fresh parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto, olives, and specialty dishes like marinated shrimp and mushrooms in the large glass case. Homemade lasagna, desserts, and individual dinners fill another cooler, while one-pound cans of anchovies, jars of antipasto, eggplant rolls, pasta sauces, and potato gnocchi line the shelves in the adjoining room. Angela's is one of two local groceries that prove you don't have to travel to the Hill neighborhood in St. Louis or Chicago's Little Italy for an authentic dose of everything Italian, from tortellini to tiramisu.

While most large grocery chains now offer the basic ingredients, there are many who desire the personal attention, fresh ingredients, and endless selection that only a true specialty store like Angela's can offer. Local demand has led the Food Mart, a downtown Springfield staple for more than 100 years, to begin specializing more in Italian food items, says co-owner Peter Pirrera. While the store, opened by Pirrera's great-great-grandfather Sam Malambri, began offering imported foods like Belgian chocolates and jams about 25 years ago, it started to focus on Italian specialties about eight years ago.

Pirrera, who owns the store with his brother Tony, says he now has 70 different kinds of pasta and sauces, homemade olive salads and cannoli, and about 10 types of salami. They host five Italian open houses each year for customers to sample items. While many local residents still travel to St. Louis to stock their pantries, he says, "We have people that used to go to the Hill that do most of their shopping here now. We might have 10 cheeses, and [the Hill groceries] have 30 or 40, but we've gotten a lot of that business now."

These local groceries aren't just places to grab a jar of pasta sauce. Part of the charm and allure of shopping at Angela's is that the longer you linger the more you learn. In fact, Lichtenberger's success is proof that there is a definite demand for authentic Italian cuisine like Grandma used to make. The business, which opened six years ago, is advertised only by a small sign out front: a white map of Italy.

After her children were grown, the petite, dark-haired owner says she was bored and needed a hobby. She now operates the shop single-handedly, often starting her day baking bread at 3 a.m. and making a monthly shopping trip to Chicago to keep the store supplied with chunks of fresh parmigiano, fontinella, and Italian meats. "It's tiring, but it's a lot of satisfaction," she says. Customers keep coming back with praise for her homemade pastas, desserts, and dinners.

She prides herself on the fact that she makes many items from scratch, including her seasonal stuffed ravioli, which includes pumpkin in the fall and seafood in the summer. In fact, that loyal following was evident recently when she broke her knee two days before Christmas and some of her customers helped her fulfill orders. Lichtenberger made 300 pounds of Italian cookies for Christmas this year, 20 tiramisu cakes, and numerous pounds of homemade ravioli, sausage, and other Italian delicacies.

Local resident Mabel "Sis" Vallar has been shopping at Angela's for several years, two or three times a week. She stopped by on New Year's Eve day for some Italian ham, homemade cheese tortellini, and a friendly chat. She comes for the food, she says, but also "for the hospitality."

Angela's, A Taste of Italy, 1535 S. MacArthur (787-7922): hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

The Food Mart, 416 E. Monroe (522-3621): hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. New expanded hours will begin in February.

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