When the Carluccio’s team invited me to check out their new Italian market and restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, I thought it was going to be a bit like Balducci’s, which we’re writing about soon. But Carluccio’s is not the high-end supermarket I was expecting. It’s an amazing restaurant with an attached market and bakery for the Italian foodstuffs (from pasta to cured meats) you try at the restaurant as well as extra items anyone who enjoys Italian cuisine would want. It’s also the first U.S. location for the original Carluccio’s in the U.K., opened by acclaimed Italian chef and television personality Antonio Carluccio.

First let me talk about the Carluccio’s market, which features a wonderful array of holiday goods you can easily pick up for last-minute holiday gifts, hostess presents, and of course (as was in my case), for your own family ! The main item this time of year is the traditional Italian Panettone, a type of sweet bread loaf made around the holidays in Italian. As the beautiful Italian manager told me, they have it in Italy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner this time of year — but be aware that if you try and make it at home, it takes HOURS and HOURS. So you’re definitely better off letting the experts make it. It’s $45 a loaf, and it comes in traditional flavor (hazelnut glazed with dried fruit and candied peel) or the chocolate flavor (hazelnut glazed with milk and dark chocolate pieces).

Additionally, I loved the chocolate Christmas tree ornaments (pictured above) and bought three for my tree (they’re only $5 a piece and come with three chocolates each). The larger tree is a great gift at $14 (filled with 12 chocolates). Growing up, I always had torrone (soft pistachio and raw almond nougat bar), and I was so excited to sample Carluccio’s, which they (like everything else) have imported directly from Italy. It’s $15, but it transported me to my childhood.

The folks at Carluccio’s also have other delicious splurge-worthy items for the foodie near you: sweet fruit and bread Pandolce ($29), star-shaped sponge cake Pandoro ($40), beautiful jars of hazelnut biscuits, Baci di Dama ($45),  dark chocolate-coated savory breadsticks Grissini ($26),  and pasta kits Pasta e Sughu  ($50), and more.

As for the restaurant, it’s two levels. The bottom level, which is where the market is, is where my good friend and I had lunch, since the main dining hall upstairs doesn’t open until dinner on weeknights. The atmosphere was casual, and we were delighted to sit next to a mother and her two young children (there’s a full children’s menu!). But once my friend and I saw the Carluccio’s dining menu, we knew we were in for a serious meal. The staff treated us to a three-course lunch, and it was so unexpectedly wonderful (remember, I was expecting a sandwich station at an Italian supermarket), that I didn’t eat again that day.

Standout items we tried include the Focaccia and Caprese bites for sharing; the seasonal salad, Insalata della Salute (speck, apples, spinach, toasted walnuts and balsamic vinegar); and the following entrees: Wild Boar Tortelloni (fresh tortelloni filled with wild boar ragu and spices, finished in a butter sauce), and Satimbocca di Pocco (flattened chicken breast wrapped in Parma ham finished with a white wine and butter sauce — think of it as an Italian cordon bleu).

Both my friend (who lives in Northern Virginia), and I (who live in Montgomery County) thought Carluccio’s was well worth the drive for a meal and the market items. If you are looking for a fabulous Italian meal, get the sitter (or like us, go during the day for lunch) and head to Alexandria for a meal at Carluccio’s.

Carluccio’s is located at 100 King Street Alexandria, VA 22314. For reservations or to inquire about the market, call 703-566-5293.

My friend and I were treated to a complimentary meal, but we paid gratuity and for our market items. All opinions are my own.