Corti Brothers store began a gourmet-food revolution
By By Russ Parsons
|Los Angeles Times Staff Writer|
Sep 10, 2008 | 12:00 AM
The news in July that the Corti Bros. grocery on Folsom Boulevard was closing spread through town like wildfire. You'd have thought the city was losing its NBA team, or even the state Capitol.
A petition to keep the store in its current location was started and quickly amassed almost 1,500 signatures. Mayor Heather Fargo got involved in the effort.
Then, when a who's who of the area's chefs gathered last week for a press conference to protest the closing, the event turned instead into a celebration when it was announced that the seemingly unprepossessing market -- home base of Darrell Corti, chief provisioner of the 1970s California food revolution -- would remain where it is, at least for now.
The competing gourmet business that had leased the building even took out an ad in the Sacramento Bee to announce it was abandoning the site and to explain its side of the story.
All this fuss over the closing of a single grocery might seem hard to believe, but only if you don't know about Darrell Corti.
And these days, when once-exotic ingredients such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, good olive oil and balsamic vinegar are available even at supermarkets, why should you know about him?
But back in the day, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Corti Bros. in Sacramento was a name that conjured up a then-unimaginable bounty of hard-to-find ingredients.
Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, who was then just starting out as a restaurant critic for New West magazine, says, "I remember the first big thing I got from Darrell was Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you can imagine, there was a time you had to send to Sacramento for Parmigiano."
"What did we get from Darrell? Balsamic vinegar, white truffles and fantastic olive oils . . . and lots of beautiful ingredients from Amador County," says Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse. "Darrell opened my eyes to products from around the world. He is an amazing person who knows everything about everything. Not just what it is, but how it's produced from beginning to end. That's very unique."
Corti's role in the food world went well beyond mere merchant. He is deeply knowledgeable on a wide variety of culinary topics and always willing to share that knowledge. For many food lovers, before there was Google, there was Darrell.
"For years, every time I had a question about food, he was the person I called," says Reichl. "I never remember calling him up and having him say, 'I don't know,' no matter how arcane the question. And if he didn't know the answer, he knew where to tell you to go to get the answers."
Stocked with choices
INDEED, THE 66-year-old Corti's impromptu lectures are legendary for their complexity and length. There's the old saw about the fellow who, when asked for the time, tells how a watch is made. With Corti, it's more likely he'd start by telling you how Roman and Japanese notions of time differed and how that was evidenced in their cuisines.
For his work, Corti was included this year as a member of only the second group of inductees of the Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame, along with such luminaries as John Daniel (founder of Inglenook), Paul Draper (founder of Ridge Vineyards) and Ernest and Julio Gallo. For his pioneering promotion of Italian food products, that country's government named him a cavaliere, the equivalent of a British knighthood.
The wellspring of that fame and influence looks at first glance -- and even after two or three -- like any other mid-size grocery store that hasn't been renovated since the 1970s, complete with scuffed linoleum and one of those funky "modern" wall clocks that has only dots in place of the numbers.
There are all the typical products: toilet paper, detergent and canned tuna.
It's only when you look more closely that the place's true character becomes clear. There's Starkist canned tuna, but also Spanish ventresca, made from the tuna's fatty belly, including versions from both bonito and yellowfin. And right next to them is a big jar of five whole tuna loins canned by the luxury Spanish label Consorcio and selling for $100.
Among the spices are exotic handcrafted salts from Japan, France and Italy. The canned tomatoes include two different brands from San Marzano and another Italian brand made from the Principe Borghese variety. ("The skin is so thin, it just melts when you cook it," Corti says.)
Indeed, as Corti shows you around the store, repeating "Really, it's just a grocery," he's also pointing out jam made by an Iranian couple living in Sacramento from dried rose petals they import from Tabriz, Iran.
With such an eclectic mix of the exotic and humdrum, Corti Bros. has an almost accidental feel to it, like something that grew piece by piece rather than being market-researched from the start.
That's pretty much how it happened. The store was started by Corti's father and uncle, Frank and Gino, respectively, in 1947. For years, it was pretty much your basic North Beach, San Francisco-style Italian grocery, selling cheese, salami and homemade ravioli (still available and made using the same recipe).
It eventually grew to four stores. But like many family groceries bowing to pressure from large supermarket chains, the business shrank to the current store on Folsom Boulevard, which opened in 1970.
Corti started working at one of the stores when he was a teenager. His first task, he remembers, was plucking and drawing turkeys for the holidays. He set out to earn a doctorate in romance philology but stopped short, he says, when he returned from a year studying in Spain and realized there wasn't much money to be made teaching. Instead, in 1964, he went to work at the family store full time.
He had always been fascinated by food. "For some reason, I had always loved reading about food," Corti says. "I guess I was never good at sports, so I had to be good at something."
His first full-time job was managing the wine department. At that point, Corti says, the store was carrying the kinds of wines the family drank at home: "sound but very ordinary." When he started making buying trips to Europe in 1967, the wines stepped up in class.
"My father was a very liberal manager," says Corti. "He never told me I couldn't order something, but if I ordered it, I then had to sell it. If it was something new and I could sell it, that was fine."
It wasn't long before his father learned that indulging his son's taste for exotic items could pay big dividends. In 1969, Corti sold the first fresh white truffles in the United States (for $4.99 an ounce) and was rewarded with a fair amount of publicity. "Above everything else, my father was quite a businessman. And he found that the more references to Corti Bros. that made it into Herb Caen's column [in the San Francisco Chronicle], the better off he was."
Global wine collection
AFTER that, the selection included products from wherever Corti's restless curiosity took him. Today, the wine department at Corti Bros. is just as eclectic as the food. There are cases of affordable wines from Greece, Bulgaria and Amador County. And there is a vertical of Corison Cabernets from 14 vintages that sell for up to $550 a magnum bottle.
His treasured collection of fortified wines includes a 1927 Madeira that sells for $850 and a Rancho de Philo triple cream Sherry from Rancho Cucamonga that's less than $15.
Corti is a true connoisseur -- always discriminating but never snobbish.
As an elder statesman in the food and wine world, Corti doesn't shy from controversy. Wine, in particular, seems to be a lightning rod for him. Though he's certainly happy more people are drinking wine than ever before, he does wish they would make less of a fuss about it.
"It's very odd," Corti says. "Some people have more money than they have brains. These guys aren't interested in what's perfect. They're interested in telling you this bottle cost $850. But wine is a beverage. If you want to collect something, collect books or stamps. But not wine. Wine is for drinking."
He created a tempest in a tasting glass last year when he decreed that he would no longer stock any table wines that contained more than 14.5% alcohol -- barring from his store most of the more popular California Zinfandels. In online forums, he was assailed as "arrogant," a "Luddite" and a "dinosaur." Of course, there were also a substantial number of cheers as well.
And in truth, when you get right down to it, Corti probably is a bit of a dinosaur. He wears a blue lab coat when he's working the grocery floor, lending him the air of an old-world shopkeeper. He doesn't have a cellphone, and don't even mention the possibility of e-mail. Corti doesn't even have a business card; instead, he keeps heavy card stock on which he writes his contact information with a fountain pen.
HIS APPROACH to buying is also distinctly old school. Rather than surveying his customers as to which products they want, he leads them to the things he likes. "What's made us successful is finding things that other people are not doing," he says. "To me, that has meant finding things that are interesting to me and then seeing how we can benefit from it."
He was a pioneer of food marketing, starting a newsletter in 1967 so he could sell his more exotic items beyond the confines of Sacramento. But to this day, it is of a particularly homemade kind -- information presented in black and white with no photographs or other distractions. It looks like it could have been put together on a ditto machine.
Technically, there is a Corti Bros. website (www.cortibros.biz), but it is essentially an electronic version of the newsletter with a few photos added.
Furthermore, according to stories in the Sacramento Bee, Corti's current problems came about because he'd been operating on a handshake month-to-month lease for his building since 1988. He was paying far below market rates in rent, and when another merchant -- who is opening his own chain of gourmet stores -- offered more than twice as much, Corti Bros. was told to clear out.
But if Corti is a dinosaur, he's one who has had a huge influence on the way we cook today, even though in the end, he says once again, he's just a grocer. "When it's all said and done, I didn't play a very important role in all of this," he says. "All I've done is supply things to other people who then used them well."