Every time Daniele Catalani tries to leave the restaurant business, he gets pulled back in. By opening Toscana Market in Mt. Vernon Triangle on the day after Thanksgiving, the chef with a long history in D.C. has found a way to sell around 15 different shapes of colorful fresh pasta, soups, meal kit boxes with regional Italian themes, and bomboloni (doughnuts) with a variety of cream fillings, all without stumbling out the door after a late dinner service.
Catalani founded Cucina Al Volo, a pasta and sauce company that operated as a Union Market stall and a vendor at farmers markets before growing into a popular, affordable local brand with full-service restaurants in Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park, and a pizzeria downtown. The chef, who grew up in the Tuscan city of Pistoia, says he’s sold his stake in the restaurants to partners Matteo Catalani (his nephew) and Rolando Frias. Daniele Catalani says he’s retained the Union Market stall. His former partners already opened Retrobottega in Adams Morgan without him in 2019.
“It came to the point they really wanted to push [for restaurants], and I was like, ‘I’m a morning guy. I have a family,’” Catalani says. “You know what happened, I work mornings. I start at 4 o’clock doing all the dough and the bread, which I love. That’s the best thinking time I have during the day.”
“There was no fight or anything,” Catalani adds. “We just said, ‘Okay, you guys go.’”
The new alimentare (Italian market) at 414K Street NW does have a restaurant element, but it’s not the primary focus of the business. Half of the 3,000-square-foot space is devoted to groceries such as Italian olive oil, tomatoes, cookies, panettone, 10-inch focaccia, salumi, cheese ordered by the wheel, and jams. Toscana Market sells frozen portions of Catalani’s pasta sauces, featuring everything from vodka sauce and eggplant-based Norma to bolognese and duck or lamb ragus. He’s hoping to expand that product line with freezers at other gourmet grocers around town, like Georgetown Butcher.
The project has been in the works for three years, so Catalani says he hoped to put seats inside at one point. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, he’s stuck a few tables outside and has built an online ordering system.
Customers can place pickup orders for appetizer portions of pork and meatballs, chicken Parm and other sandwiches, margherita pizzas, and entrees like beef lasagna or pork shank ossobuco on fettuccine. A pasta box for four people ($39.50) comes with the option of four shapes — think green spinach fusilli or paprika red pappardelle — and four sauces.
Catalani predicts bomboloni will soon become the shop’s signature item. The market fries yeasty doughnuts, dusts them in sugar and lemon zest, and fills them with Nutella, pistachio, cannoli cream, and whatever else the chef thinks up. He wants to add savory options with bacon, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and capers. The plan for now is to limit bomboloni sales to Saturdays and Sundays.
“The first week that we decided to open it up, we put up a little cart outside with some of them, and we sold out in like an hour,” Catalani says.
Toscana Market is a callback to Toscana Cafe, the now-closed pasta place Catalani opened near Union Station over a decade ago, then subsequently sold. At the alimentare, the chef plans to add cooking classes, a service he misses from his days working at chef Roberto Donna’s high-end tasting menu destination, Laboratorio del Galileo.
In the back half of the market, Catalani says he’s created a stage for chefs to put on demonstrations for a small audience of couples set up at butcher block tables that are spaced more than 6 feet apart.
“It’s not going to be the same style [as Galileo],” Catalani says. “Usually I’m at the head of a table and there’s 14 people next to each other making ravioli, gnocchi, passing each other stuff.”