'Irresistibly Italian'

'Irresistibly Italian'

Luciano Catanuso has always been passionate about food. Growing up in Rome, Italy, where food is an integral part of the culture, his passion would seem natural. However, Catanuso says, most of his true passion for food comes from his mother.

"I can remember when I was 5 years old, my mom, to keep me quiet, would take me into the kitchen and give me scraps of food to chop up," he said. "She would use what I cut up in whatever she was cooking."

It was his mother who instilled in Catanuso the importance of cooking well and it was she who taught him how to create new and interesting dishes without using a lot of ingredients.

"I remember being with her, going to market and she would show me how to pick out fresh food and how to pick out the best one," he said.

Now Catanuso has brought his passion for food and his mother's teachings to Ashburn with the opening of Catanuso's Café in the Parkhurst Plaza off of Ashburn Farm Parkway. Opened on July 14, the panineria, or traditional Italian sandwich shop, is bringing new food into the county, something Catanuso is proud of.

"I have been to a lot of other [sandwich] places," he said. "I haven't been able to find the selection of sandwiches we have here."

ALTHOUGH THEY ARE new to the county, Catanuso's sandwiches are not new to the Washington, D.C., area. For many years, Catanuso owned Luciano's Café in Georgetown.

Opened in 1998, Catanuso's cuisine was a favorite amongst Georgetown University students and residents alike and was written up in places from Washingtonian magazine to the university's newspaper. Following the closing of the Georgetown location, Catanuso opened in Dulles Airport, before changing the name of his restaurant and looking for a permanent home.

Catanuso, who has lived in Cascades for more than 10 years, has wanted to open his restaurant in Loudoun County for a long time.

"This county, the area, needs some good food," he said, "and I wanted to bring it here."

It took Catanuso three years to find his location in Ashburn until one day in January he walked by the Pedal Stop Ice Cream Shop and notice it had closed. He had a lease of his own by April.

"I am so happy to be here," he said. "So happy to have found this place."

WHAT SETS HIS café apart from other sandwich shops in the area, Catanuso said, is his approach to food and cooking.

"Everything here is slow food," he said. "It is cooked slowly to keep the natural flavor of the food."

Most of the items on Catanuso's Cafés menu are simmered and sautéed, from the vegetables and garlic to the meats. Even the pesto is made from scratch. But, Catanuso said, slow food should not be equated with slow service.

"Everything here is served fast," he said. "It is slow food, given in a quick manner."

In addition to keeping with the traditional method of Italian cooking, Catanuso has brought various aspects of Italy into his restaurant, all to echo the sentiment of the café's motto, "Irresistibly Italian." All of his coffee and desserts have been shipped directly from Italy. The refrigerator along one side of the restaurant is filled with Italian sodas and spring water. Photos of Rome dot the walls and the stone counter reminds Catanuso of home.

"I am trying to make it a little different, bring a little piece of Italy here," Catanuso said. "Everything authentic all the time."

CATANUSO'S PASSION for Italian food is being passed down to the people who work at the café. Jay Lum, who first met Catanuso two years ago, is as dedicated to providing customers with authentic Italian food as Catanuso.

"Things are coming full circle," Lum, who is of Sicilian descent, said. "I used to love cooking, but when I got older I didn't care as much. Since I've met [Catanuso], I'm bringing my passion back."

Under Catanuso's tutelage Lum is learning to cook properly and, Catanuso said, is exactly what he needed for his restaurant.

"He pestered me for a long time, saying that he wanted to cook food," he said. "I gave him a chance and he has proven to be the person that I need."

The familial atmosphere of the café is not limited to the people who run it, however. Michelle Bollinger, a Stone Bridge student, has been nicknamed Michaela from the moment she walked through the door and Catanuso has began his own wall of fame.

Each customer who comes through the door is offered a chance to have their photo taken for the wall. Catanuso said he was inspired by the restaurants that have photos of famous customers on the walls, but that he did not want to limit himself.

"People are people," he said. "Patronage comes from all people and so all people should be on the wall."

The wall of fame is a way to create a community around the restaurant, Catanuso said.

"People may see their friends up there and realize this is a place they all come to," he said. "Or they may see someone they had not seen in a long time and meet them again."

Since opening the doors two weeks ago, Catanuso said, things have only been improving, even without the street traffic he became used to in Georgetown and Dulles Airport.

"People who do come in say it is a breath of fresh air," Lum said.

"It will take time," Catanuso said. "I would love for people to come in just for a taste."