The Tastemaker

He’s been called the Indiana Jones of the culinary world and the man who “knows more about food and wine than anyone else in America.” How did the son of a Sacramento mayonnaise salesman become a buttoned-up grocer while leading a double life as a globe-trotting gourmet? Just who is Darrell Corti and why do so many important people think he has the planet’s greatest nose for quality?

Max Whittaker

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The early September sun seemed especially bright reflecting off their clean, white coats. Nearly two dozen of Sacramento’s most celebrated chefs—boldface names like Biba Caggiano, Mai Pham, Randall Selland, Rick Mahan, Kurt Spataro, Patrick Mulvaney and Ettore Ravazzolo—had all assembled in the Corti Brothers parking lot to support a man who, as they knew better than most of us, had not only altered the culinary landscape of Sacramento but, all hyperbole aside, America.

The year was 2008. In the weeks leading up to the gathering, Corti Brothers was on the verge of losing its lease on the last of its venerated grocery stores that dated back to 1947, when brothers Frank and Gino Corti opened their first one in downtown Sacramento. This particular location at 59th Street and Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento had remained virtually unchanged since the day it opened its doors in 1970. A new grocer had offered the landlord a significantly higher rent, and Corti Brothers, astonishingly, had been operating on a month-to-month lease for decades and was now in very real danger of closing its doors, perhaps for the final time.

Corti Brothers’ predicament was, of course, somewhat self-inflicted, with the store’s management through the years relying on relationships over long-term contracts. But while this decidedly old-school, handshake approach had nearly destroyed the grocery in 2008, that same philosophy, as applied to quality and service—and, yes, relationships—was the very reason that these vaunted chefs had assembled on this day to celebrate not only a store but the last remaining grocer to bear its name—Darrell Corti.

It would be six months more before Corti Brothers would be assured of staying in place with a new long-term lease, but the rally and its ensuing media attention reminded the community how much was at stake. And while Corti has a reputation for being reserved, his emotions betrayed him on that day.Many of the city’s top chefs came out to  support Corti in 2008 after the lease on his store was threatened. (Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweit)

When he walked to the podium to address the sea of supporters, which also included loyal customers and then-mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson, Corti looked at everyone for a few moments. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes welled with tears. His voice cracked briefly as he began to speak.

“I’m not quite sure why you’re all here,” he said.

In fact, even today, as Corti Brothers celebrates its 65th year in business, many people in this region who aren’t foodies or oenophiles may still wonder why the culinary elite of the city turned out en masse for a guy who runs a neighborhood grocery store in East Sacramento.

But ask some of the country’s biggest culinary figures, like Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, or the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine Colman Andrews, and they’ll tell you.

As Reichl recounted in her 2001 best-selling memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, Andrews told Reichl in 1978 that Corti, “knows more about food and wine than anyone else in America.”

“He still does,” says Reichl today. “He’s the most underappreciated resource in the food world.”

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Alice Waters, who in 1971 opened Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant that became ground zero for the changing California food scene in the 1970s and ’80s, says Darrell Corti opened her eyes to products from around the world. “Before anyone,” she says, “he was importing things from Europe that were unimaginable before then. Olive oil, prosciutto, even truffles. He was the original one.”

Corti is, in fact, widely credited with introducing white truffles to America in 1969. He also introduced Californians to great olive oils, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Brie cheeses, exotic saThe vintage signs and impeccably stacked products echo Corti's old-school ethos. (Photo by Max Whittaker)lts, quality sherries, many single-malt bourbons and scotches, and much sought-after “Super Tuscan” wines. He advised the founders of Sacra-
mento’s Sterling Caviar, and Corti Brothers carried the first harvest in 1996. (Today, the local company is the largest producer of farm-raised caviar in America, counting among its customers some of the country’s top chefs, including The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller.)

“In the ’70s, if you wanted a white truffle or a good piece of Parmigiano or you name it,” says Reichl, “Darrell would put it on a Greyhound and send it down to L.A. for you. You couldn’t buy it anywhere in California except at Corti Brothers.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, the collection of people seriously interested in food was tiny before the Food Network-fueled, celebrity-chef culinary culture exploded, and those primal foodies bonded, talked and traded information. Corti’s reputation grew by word of mouth in that small, but highly influential, crowd. “People would pass along that there was this very serious, erudite gentleman who ran a grocery store in Sacramento and knew a tremendous amount,” says Saveur’s Andrews.

He recalls taking Reichl to dinner at Corti’s Curtis Park home (the same one he lives in today) in 1977, when Corti entertained the two journalists with caviar, foie gras, sherry and other epicurean delights. “We discovered this weird, wonderful substance,” says Andrews, who is now editorial director of the website The Daily Meal. “It was called balsamic vinegar. We didn’t know it existed.”

Corti also made friends and impressed people in the Berkeley Wine and Food Society, a group of a few dozen restaurant and winery owners and others interested in those worlds. Narsai David, who opened Narsai’s Restaurant in Berkeley in 1972 (and whose wine list The New York Times called one of the “most extraordinary” in the country) says people were drawn to Corti because of his knowledge, his curiosity, his opinions and, of course, his pantry—known as Corti Brothers.

“If there was a need for some exotic foodstuff from some other part of the world,” David says, “Darrell not only could get it for you, most of the time, he already had it right there.” Waters met Corti in that Berkeley scene and he has been a regular customer at Chez Panisse ever since it opened (even celebrating his 60th birthday there).

“I remember that when Chez Panisse was written up in Gourmet magazine [in the mid-’70s], we were all so thrilled,” Waters says. “Darrell sent a funeral wreath, thinking we would all of a sudden become trendy and forget our regulars. I hope we never have and his funny gesture is something I have never forgotten.”

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.

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