Before our annual party to celebrate German St. Nikolaus Day, a holiday that falls shortly before Christmas, one of my parents drives to German Gourmet to stock up on Weißwurst, Landjäger, Spätzle and other difficult-to-find, authentic German goods. On their most recent trip, my parents met a woman who made an annual five hour trip from her home in North Carolina to German Gourmet in Virginia to stock up on German goods for the Christmas season.
For regulars like this North Carolina native or my family, the long drive is completely worth it, as no product from Safeway or Whole Foods compares to freshly cooked Nürnberger or Lebkuchen — and I’d take a cold bottle of Almduddler over a can of Coca-Cola any day.
Luckily for Bethesda residents in search of local, authentic foods, this area boasts a rich variety of traditional, ethnic stores where both immigrants and non-immigrants can enjoy the unique selection and wide array of cultural foods that these stores offer.
Vace Italian Delicatessen
Chef Valerio Calcagno grew up in New York surrounded by a vibrant Italian community and many Italian delis. While working in D.C., Valerio noticed a lack of Italian specialty stores in the area and decided to open a deli to sell his homemade pastas, his daughter Diana Calcagno said.
“My father was a chef, and his dream was actually always to sell his frozen pastas,” Diana said. “They didn’t have a pasta machine here, so my dad would have to drive all the way up to New York, make the pasta, and drive all the way back until they were able to save up enough money to actually buy a pasta machine.”
When the shop was first founded in 1974, boxed pasta, wine and other Italian goods were largely unavailable in mainstream grocery stores in the U.S., Diana said. Vace stepped in to fill the gap and became one of the first stores in the area to offer homemade dry pasta as well as other Italian-made goods like Nutella.
Since then, Vace has expanded to offer a wider variety of frozen goods, the majority of which are homemade.
“Ninety-eight percent of everything in our freezer is actually homemade. The pasta, the lasagna, our fresh sausage — all of that is homemade,” Diana said. “It’s made in a small little factory where we produce weekly every type of product we sell.”
In January, The Washington Post ranked Vace as having one of the top 10 best pizzas in the D.C. area. Since the ranking was published, Vace’s average number of pizza orders has increased from 100 to 150 pizzas a night. As the popularity of the store has grown, the demographic of customers has expanded as well, Diana said.
“When the store opened, there were a lot of Italian customers,” Diana said. “Now, there’s no real demographic. It’s just kind of anybody who really likes true Italian food and good homemade food.”
New to Bethesda, Guru Groceries opened its doors in July 2019. Owner Deepak Khemka, however, has been in the grocery business for over 30 years.
After coming to the United States from India to attend university, Khemka noticed a lack of grocery stores that offered South Asian, specifically Indian foods, despite the high demand for them.
“There’s a big community for Indians around here, and they wanted some food,” Khemka said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years so I know what people want and their needs.”
Khemka has often closed stores and then reopened in a new location. Last year, he decided to move Guru Groceries to Bethesda from Rockville, since many of his customers while he was based in Rockville were coming from Bethesda to buy goods.
From mango ice cream to fresh samosas, Guru Groceries offers a large selection of South Asian and Indian foods, many of which are imported directly from India. While Guru Groceries was initially moved to Bethesda to provide a much needed supply of authentic Indian foods for Indian families, the store has gained popularity among various other demographics as well.
“It’s been growing,” Khemka said. “People are getting to know us since we opened through word of mouth and advertisements, and everyday I see that it keeps growing.”
Originally named A&H, Pescadeli began as a Spanish wholesale business owned by two brothers Alfonso and Herminio Martinez. After Alfonso’s passing, current owner Santi Zabaleta bought the business and chose to transform the wholesale location into a new retail store.
The name, Pescadeli, emerged from a combination of two Spanish words and is reflective of the variety of products that the store has to offer, Pescadeli fishmonger Jose Emilio said.
“‘Pesca’ stands for fish and ‘deli’ for the prepared foods — two words in one,” Emilio said. “At Pescadeli, we have fish and a small prepared section where we sell tortilla español, paella, and some salads to go with fish.”
Along with fresh fish and prepared foods, Pescadeli also offers a variety of ingredients necessary for Spanish cooking, such as wine vinegars, olive oils and paella spices. For those who wish to cook their own authentic Spanish dishes, staff is always available to teach customers the different uses of the various ingredients, Emilio said.
“In Bethesda, businesses are growing more than other places because it’s more secure, and there are more customers around the area,” Emilio said. “Once they discover the place, they decide to come here more often.”