Joyce Goldstein - September 2013
Food Arts presents the September 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Darrell Corti, owner of the pioneering Corti Brothers grocery in Sacramento, California. Back in the early days of the California food movement in the 1970s and ’80s, chefs needing impossible-to-find specialty items called upon Corti to track them down and get them to their kitchens. His Rolodex of clients past and present reads like a culinary history: Chez Panisse, Valentino, Square One, Stars, Santa Fe Bar and Grill, Modesto Lanzone, North Beach Restaurant, and Palio d’Asti. He’s even supplied other gourmet shops, such as the Oakville Grocery, Dean & DeLuca, and The Pasta Shop.
“Darrell opened my eyes to products from around the world,” says Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. “He knows everything about everything, not just what it is, but how it’s produced from beginning to end.”
Piero Selvaggio, the Sicilian native who owns Valentino in Santa Monica, California, recalls that in February 1974, The International Wine & Food Society in Hollywood told him that some of the product for their dinner would be shipped from a merchant in Sacramento named Darrell Corti. “I didn’t expect much,” Selvaggio says now, “but that was my first introduction to tartufi bianchi from Alba and a very expensive Barolo called Conterno Monfortino [$6.50 then, $1,000 today]. It was the beginning of a relationship that lasts till today.”
In 1947, Frank and Gino Corti opened Corti Brothers grocery, with a goal of not only offering the best quality products, but of gently educating their patrons about food and wine as well. Darrell, Frank’s son, started working in the store as a teenager in 1967. Now 71, Corti has been called a “walking encyclopedia of food and wine.” In her memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, the food journalist Ruth Reichl writes that when Colman Andrews introduced her to Corti, he said: “Here is the man who knows more about food and wine than anyone in the world.”
Corti Brothers has resisted slick modernization and still has the look of an old-fashioned grocery. But under Corti’s guidance, the store has been in the culinary avant-garde. Along with impeccable seasonal local produce and meat, it carries a vast selection of international ingredients to satisfy the interests of multicultural Californians. On the shelf next to the everyday canned tuna are ventresca di tonno from Spain and Italy. And if you asked Corti about the difference between the two, he would tell you—and then some.
Although he stocks a unique selection of extra-virgin olive oils from Spain and Italy at affordable prices, when winery owners Lila Jaeger and Carolyn Wente needed advice about the ancient olive trees on their property, they called Corti, whose advice helped jump-start the California olive oil business. When Sterling Caviar started up farm-raised caviar production in the United States, the company consulted Corti. For his efforts in promoting Italian products, the Italian government has honored him with the title of Cavaliere. In 2008, he was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame by The Culinary Institute of America, in part for the role he played in the development of wine production in Amador County.
A pioneer in the world of direct marketing, in 1967 he started a newsletter still avidly read by those who want to know what foods and wines this dedicated connoisseur has discovered on his travels and has brought back to the store. As Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times once put it: “For many food lovers, before there was Google, there was Darrell.”