Small, homey and fragrant with the warm aroma of freshly baked ciabatta loaves stacked in a basket near the door, Angela's A Taste of Italy at 1535 S. MacArthur Blvd. is a nice place to come in from the cold, have a cookie and buy a few authentic Italian staples for supper.
Customers can choose from ciabatta (white flour loaves of yeast bread shaped like, as the translation says, "carpet slippers"), margherita pizzas, cheese ravioli, salads, desserts, and more. What proprietress Angela Lichtenberger doesn't make or bake is imported.
What proprietress Angela Lichtenberger doesn't make or bake, she imports. Prosciutto from Parma. Serrano ham from Spain. Olive oil from Sicily. Tomatoes from Naples, sweetened by rich black earth and Pompeiian ash.
The store is stocked with a long list of fresh, bottled and boxed items packed into two rooms amounting to about 900 square feet, including enough clear floor space to walk. Lichtenberger's small kitchen is in the back.
"It's very authentic, very old school, very ethnic. It's home for me," says Tanya DeSanto, who grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago and visited the small Italian groceries and specialty shops nearby.Now living in Springfield, DeSanto has her own children and takes them to visit Lichtenberger. "Those pictures of children behind the counter? Those are my children. It warms my heart. Angela gave (my daughter) her first cookie. She treats everybody like family."
Lichtenberger was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily. Marriage brought her to Springfield, where her children, home and gardens were her full-time job until, one day in 1997 after her youngest son had left for college, "I got bored," she says.
Lichtenberger's mother was running a sewing and alterations shop in a little building in the 1500 block of MacArthur Boulevard and invited Lichtenberger to open a shop there.
"I was a language major in college," Lichtenberger says. "I never cooked in my life. I learned to cook for my kids. But what do you do? You get bored, you open a shop. Fourteen years later, I can't believe I'm still here."
Now, she gets up between 3 and 4 a.m. on weekends to make bread, pizzas and special orders. Weekdays, she cooks for three hours before opening the store at 10 a.m., then waits on customers, reads and bakes cookies and other delicacies. Often, someone will just come in to visit.
"I'm a people person," Lichtenberger says. "I like to talk. 'Do you have time to talk?' someone will ask me. Some older Italian people just want to talk Italian, so I'll talk Italian to them. It's not all about money. I don't know what's going to happen any day, but I know I'm going to help someone."
Besides having a friendly conversation, customers count on Lichtenberger to fill their dinner tables and cater their parties with hearty pastas, zesty vegetable salads and a mouthwatering assortment of tender, pretty cookies - 600 pounds of them this past Christmas.
One cookie in particular caught the attention of first-time visitor Don Buttitta, who lives in Springfield and works for the Illinois State Police.
"Did you really make those cucidati (traditional fig cookies)?" Buttitta asked, happy to accept a free sample before trading stories of cookies and traditions with Lichtenberger.
"These are like I've been baking with my grandmother since I was a little kid that now my father bakes," says Buttitta, speaking of his Italian family. "I've never ever seen them in a store. Ever. Her recipe is slightly different from my grandmother's, but with your eyes closed, you know exactly what it is."
On that first visit, Buttitta bought two types of cookies, including the biscotti he likes for breakfast, a loaf of bread and two salads. The next day, he and his wife returned for a pizza, a taste of the red and green peppers and some "good grating cheese," he says.
That Tuesday, he took some of his coworkers for a visit and bought hard salami, tortellini salad and a pound of stuffed red peppers. And for his father's birthday gathering in southern Illinois, Buttitta planned to take cannoli, red peppers "and anything else that will fit in the cooler."
DeSanto buys meat balls to add to her own pasta as well as ready-cooked meals to put on the table after working all day. Also, she says, "we have her cater all of our events," including extended family gatherings.
"She'll suggest a few things, maybe start off with some fresh bread and a mozzarella-tomato salad with artichokes, then maybe chicken parmesan or lasagna, or some lean Italian beef for the crock pot and a tiramisu. I can call her and she'll have it done when I need it."
Lichtenberger also is known for her seasonal raviolis - butternut squash and pumpkin in the fall, asparagus in the spring, artichoke in the summer, spinach and cheese year-round - and for her fresh, flavorful cheeses. In blocks. Never grated in advance.
"You grate those cheeses way ahead of time," she says, "and they get waxy."
"You can't find good Parmesan-Reggiano anywhere as fresh as what Angela sells," says Springfield attorney Ed Dwyer. "She has the best ricotta. And I buy her meat sauce."
Dwyer visited the store one winter weekend morning last year to pick up ingredients for a special family supper.
"I was making lasagna for my son's birthday dinner. I'm not Italian, but if you're going to do it, do it right. She has the freshest and most original ingredients."
Like DeSanto, Lichtenberger's store reminds Dwyer of his Chicago youth.
"It's a lot like the small corner deli stores I grew up with in Chicago. You can't find (these ingredients) at any supermarket in town. I hope she never closes."
Lichtenberger is as generous as she is gregarious with her customers. In addition to sharing free samples and conversation, she passes along some of her favorite recipes. She's easygoing.
"It's not like I'm going to get rich with this place. But it's a place to go, and it's my place," she says.
"God has been very good to me and I try to do the best that I can. It's a little place, but it's a little piece of home for me."
Angela's A Taste of Italy
Recipe to try
Here is Angela Lichtenberger's recipe for Bucatini All'amatriciana, pancetta and tomato sauce.
Saute the onion in olive oil until translucent; add the garlic, cook until golden, then remove garlic. Add the pancetta, tomatoes, salt and red pepper. Simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook the bucatini in gently boiling salt water until just done, about 12 minutes. Toss pasta with sauce and cheese.
Note: "In Italy," Lichtenberger says, "we don't drown our pasta in sauce like the Americans. We like to taste the pasta. So, go easy on the sauce, and buon appetito!"
Here's a look at some authentic Italian pastas to use with your own sauces, or with just a drop of rich, green olive oil.
The words "in bronzo" mean the pasta was cooked in a large bronze pot. "All'uovo" pasta contains egg. "The sauce sticks to the egg," says Angela Lichtenberger. "Any pasta with egg is good with heavy sauce that will stick to it."
Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )