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The rebel grocer

If Californians no longer consider balsamic vinegar or white truffles exotic, thank Darrell Corti, whose landmark Sacramento store has new life -- for now.

September 10, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — 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.

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