Historian of the Galaxy Douglas Adams once pointed out that in highly developed societies, the most pressing human problem is not finding something to eat but deciding where to have lunch. Seattle decisively entered this phase in the mid-1970s, when François and Julia Kissel’s Brasserie Pittsbourg became the prime site for the chattering classes’ two-hour lunches.
Other restaurants have had their brief or lasting moments of popularity since, but it took a quarter century for the next unquestioned cynosure of the downtown set to open—in a noisy, crowded corridor of a place, just off a particularly seedy corner near Pioneer Square.
Salumi (the plural of ”sausage” in Italian) looked and smelled and sounded like a humble take-out deli with a couple dozen places to sit. if you were willing to stand on line long enough, that is, or (unfair but so delicious for the privileged) if you were a friend of the family.
And it was a family. The padrone, Armandino Batali, was usually there in his cloth cap and butcher’s apron. His daughter Gina was often behind the counter dishing out the meatball sandwiches. On some Wednesdays there was even an Italian nonna sitting in the front window, rolling out gnocchi dough by hand.
But it also was a kind of beautiful illusion. The padrone was a Boeing aircraft salesman who decided to master the art of preserving meat as a retirement project. The winsome daughter behind the counter was a former top corporate executive at a Fortune 500 company.
The customers played along with show. On its own modest scale, Salumi was a roaring success. Its finocchiona and sopressata and agrumi salamis soon appeared in the deli cases of the tonier kind of supermarkets; the entire Salumi line of cured meats, including Batali inventions like lamb prosciutto and the cocoa and cinnamon-scented mole salami, went on sale nationwide by mail-order.
But time rolls on. Unlike the traditional family-owned model of artisanal salumeria, there was no third generation waiting to step into the founder’s shoes. Well before the shop’s 20th anniversary, the future of the store, and the brand, was in question.
Behind the scenes, however, the process of succession was already taking place. Two widely traveled and sophisticated recent transplants to the area met on the ski-slopes of Mount Baker, hit it off, and discovered their mutual desire to return from full-time motherhood to active engagement with the larger world.
They had complementary experience that made a food-service enterprise a promising goal. Clara Veniard, born in Argentina of a family of confectioners with French-Italian roots, had started a business at age 14 catering empanadas before heading of to college and the Peace Corps.
Martinique Grigg, like Veniard a Dartmouth alumna, arrived in the Northwest from a job with LL Bean to run the outdoor-recreation group the Mountaineers. Both fell for the conviviality of “the Salumi experience” as soon as they encountered it.
Their approach to the Batali family was anything but hasty. In October of 2017, the two “donned hairnets and immersed themselves in the world of grinds and fermentation,” It is still a trade practiced almost exclusively by males. One of the team’s ancillary goals was to change that fact.
Under the trade name Coro by Salumi, the old/new brand launched in October 2019, just in time to see the world, especially the retail world, shut down tight. Even in a food-besotted market like Seattle, an iconic eatery changing hands was not front-page news.
Street life is beginning to flourish again, but in a changed psychic atmosphere. As former fans begin to comprehend that a quasi-legendary institution is “under new management,” there will inevitably be an awkward period of rediscovery. Habitual customers will start tasting the product again. “Is it really the same? Has there been a falling off? Is my beloved Salumi headed inexorably for commercial exploitation, like . . . shudder . . . Oberto’s?
The new public face of the operation will demand adjustment too. The storefront on the raffish 2nd Extension South was part of the Salumi experience. The new location, on upscale under-trafficked Occidental South, amid a dozen or so similar eateries, is not as distinctive and, perversely, not as welcoming: Behind the cheery outdoor tables, the interior is a bit chilly, its self-presentation a little formal and anonymous. It’s still noisy, but in an empty echo-y way.
The new owners recognize that by renaming the product, they’re calling attention to a new régime and a new way of doing business. They accept the challenge. “We never intended just to reproduce or preserve what Armandino created,” Veniard says. “Since we embarked on this project, we have gone over every process, every ingredient, looking for ways to improve.”
Sometimes the customer will never consciously notice the change: sea salt instead of iodized, for instance. Turbinado sugar instead of cane. “There are natural casings available for sausage making, which are very expensive these days, and there are less expensive artificial casings that are theoretically edible but not really agreeable to eat but hard to peel off. We prefer to pre-peel the sausage before sale; it’s another processing step requiring more labor, but it’s part of our commitment to top quality.”
Someone looking for a quick nosh is not likely to look closely at the cross-section of a slice of salami in their sandwich. Coro, though, cares. “Ideally, a slice should show clean roundels of fat against the more even pink of the meat, “If you’re not careful, the fat granules will lose their distinction and give the texture a mushy appearance. We found that lowering the temperature of the mixture just a few degrees during processing avoids that problem.”
Batali himself was an innovator. Not wanting even to try to compete with Parma’s incomparable prosciutto, he experimented with the very different texture and flavor profile of leg of lamb and created a new classic cured meat.
Among the innovations you’ll notice among Coro’s offerings are non-classic flavor combinations like cardamom and orange peel, garlic with ginger, fennel and curry, lemongrass. Salumi’s pioneering mini-salami “stubs” are now called “piccolos,” and many varieties are now available pre-sliced (in dubiously recyclable plastic casing).
Veniard grants that the packaging is off-putting to serious recyclers, but points to the company’s effort to improve in the organic and ethical sourcing and provenance of ingredients, never a central focus of the firm under the Batali régime.
She also points to the company’s vigorously asserted commitment to the ethical treatment of employees and to striving for a more transparent and less hierarchical way of running a business, something that is often lacking in the restaurant industry.
There’s no doubt that, in addition to instability and uncertainty in the economy, their aspirations will put upward pressure on costs. But so far, the team’s business plan is ahead of projections. Veniard says the company is debt-free and running at a profit, with mail-order during the pandemic leaping to an astonishing 38 percent of cash flow.
For those of us constrained by political correctness, there’s cognitive dissonance in the very idea of an ethical, environmentally sensitive product made of meat, artisanal or not. I too miss the good old days, gone forever. But when I think of a Salumi porchetta sandwich, redolent of sautéed onions and drooling with juice, I find myself in rare agreement with the young future saint Augustine: Let me be virtuous, Lord . . . just not yet.
404 Occidental Ave South, Seattle, WA
Monday through Saturday 11am-3pm
Coro by Salumi