The story of Catania Bakery at 1404 N Capitol St. NW and its owner, Nicole Tramonte, has so many interesting angles, so many turns and branches, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
I could write about Nicole, who first came to the U.S. from France almost fifty years ago to attend to a sister injured in a car accident, and, except for one brief interval, has been here ever since.
I could write about the changes that Catania has seen over the years, like the iron grill installed in the window following the riots of 1968 that stands there today, even though Nicole’s seen the neighborhood improve in leaps and bounds since then.
And, of course, I could write about Catania’s fresh-baked Italian bread and pastries, which are worthy of its deep roots.
I’ll start where Catania started, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1932. Born in the United States but in a town so heavily Italian that his birth certificate was actually written in Italian, Alfio Caruso operated an Italian bakery for years before deciding to make the move to Washington, seeking, like so many today, what he hoped would be a recession-proof halo around the federal district.
His children, Grace, Louis, John and Sam, eventually took over the bakery, serving families in what was, Nicole says, a heavily Italian area at the time. She was working at The Bayou then, a now famous music hall in Georgetown, which was owned by her husband’s family. That’s the way it stayed into the seventies, when the Caruso siblings, with only one child among them, a daughter who moved out West, decided it was time to sell. Nicole and her husband knew the bakery well as customers, and, as they were just preparing to sell the Bayou, the timing seemed right.
They took over the store, with Nicole in the lead as her husband, “Doc” Antoni Tramonte, continued with his career as a dentist. Nicole had lots of experience in the restaurant business from her time at The Bayou, but none in the baking business. The Carusos helped ease the transition, staying involved in Catania throughout their lives. Until recently, Louis, who’s over 90 years old and lives just up New Hampshire Avenue, would visit the store every Saturday.
If you want to sample Catania’s goods, Nicole only opens for retail on Saturday mornings, when you can stock up on your bread for the week or try her fresh-made pastries. Most of her business now is wholesale, and you can find Catania goods at A. Litteri, Inc., (an Italian food store on Florida Avenue just before Gallaudet University that’s older even than Catania), Lauriol Plaza and, most recently, “Ball or Nothing” a new foodtruck specializing in meatball subs, among many others.
Business hasn’t been great recently for Nicole, who’s affected by the same downturn that’s made things tough for the restaurant industry in general. “I was talking to one customer the other day,” she jokes, “and the man says, ‘Oh, Mi Nicola Bella, business sucks!’” The Italian families who used to support her retail operation, in many cases continuing to drive in from the suburbs long after leaving the neighborhood, are slowly drying up too.
Nicole still enjoys the work, though, and has no plans to stop anytime soon. She only comes in to Catania five days a week, with the baking done overnight by her team. She can take off whenever she needs to, and most importantly, she finds the work fulfilling. “I like doing something productive. I think I need to be needed!” she says, laughing.
So stop by Catania one Saturday morning for a croissant and some coffee or keep a look out for “Ball or Nothing” Catania has been making some of the finest bread in the district for 80 years now, and it doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon.
You should also be sure to check out the Kickstarter page for a documentary on The Bayou – a great slice of recent DC history!