Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, Nordstrom and Mario Batali, restaurant chef, television star, cookbook author, media celebrity, kitchen phenomenon and quintessential Italian food guy.
Mr. Batali, long gone from Seattle, lives and reigns in New York City.
Foodies set their VCRs to tape his television programs on the Food Network. His insights, passion and warmth glue fans to the tube. His teaching style is chef-next-door comfortable. Home cooks rely on the clarity and savvy of Mr. Batali’s cookbooks published by Clarkson Potter: “Simple Italian Food,” “Mario Batali Holiday Food” and “The Babbo Cookbook.”
Mr. Batali and his partner, wine maven Joe Bastianich, son of the reigning queen of Italian food, Lidia Bastianich, own the upscale New York restaurant Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca on the good-luck site of the revered old Coach House on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village.
Babbo’s deep-pocket customers dine on Old World delicacies. Grilled lamb chops and wild king salmon sell to conservatives at table. But for the glitterati who eat on the edge, those ho-hum entrees take a back seat to the likes of pig-foot Milanese; beef cheek ravioli; fennel-dusted sweetbreads; warm lamb tongue vinaigrette and platters of house-made cured meats; paper-thin ruffles of pork and goose prosciutto; lardo; calf tongue; testa (head cheese); and lomo, an air-dry-cured pork.
The cured meats and sausages are made in the rear of the rustic gallerylike setting at Mr. Batali’s wine shop, Italian Wine Merchants (108 E. 16th St.), just off Union Square. There, in a learning laboratory named Studio del Gusto, is a state-of-the-art kitchen where 450-pound organic hog halves are shipped in from Vermont, then processed.
Mr. Batali calls the two custom-built rooms “a vegetarian’s idea of hell.”
Mr. Batali lives in the Village with his wife, Susi Cahn of the Coach Dairy Goat Farm (and the Coach handbag family), and their two boys, Benno and Leo.
At 43, Mr. Batali is truly a star. He didn’t burst onto the scene full-blown; like the rest of us, he’s a product of his family’s values, history and adventures. To find out just how far this apple fell from the tree, I visited his dad, Armandino, in Seattle, where Armo, as he is called by his friends, has a cult-hero status all his own.
But first let’s straighten out the vowels in salumi, salumeria and salami. Salumi is the Italian word for Italian cold cuts. A salumeria is an Italian delicatessen where they sell salumi, as well as cheeses, olive oils and olives. Sandwich salami is just one type of salumi. All three words come from “sale,” which means “salt.” All the meats are salted and cured, not cooked.
Armandino Batali, 66, and his wife Marilyn, married 44 years, own Salumi, a 700-square-foot sandwich shop, minuscule kitchen and meat-curing factory in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. It is open for lunch four days a week; on the other days, Mr. Batali is in the back making salumi.
An orange flag printed with the outline of a pig hangs outside the corner storefront, which in 1903 was a Wells Fargo office. Customers must stand single file in the former hallway to get to the counter to place their mostly to-go lunch orders for a short roster of house-cured meats, daily special hot dishes, salads and soups.
Customers wanting to linger carry their plates over to the 12-seat communal table and sit with elbows tucked in, the tabletop a jumble of wine bottles and bread baskets. There are also two tables for two, each the size of a large pizza.
Stepping out from behind the counter, Mr. Batali greets a guest, smiling from ear to ear. The other countermen will take over his spot during the rush hour. They are both retired, mellow guys who consider free lunch and a glass of wine adequate salary. One counterman has a Ph.D. in mathematics; the other is a retired lawyer, an Irishman whose business card touts him as “Salumi’s consiglieri.”
Mr. Batali is living his retirement dream and loving every minute. After piling a plate with salumi samples, he brings olive oil and bread for dipping and pours glasses of wine. Then he settles in to tell his family’s tale.
When asked about you know who, he says: “Before I say anything about Mario, I want to tell you about my two other children. They live here in Seattle and both are as successful in their fields as Mario is in his. Dana, 42, is the director of Pixar’s software project, Renderman, responsible for the hit movie ‘Finding Nemo.’ Our daughter Gina, 41, is a human-resources and training executive with General Electric. Listen, she’s the one who keeps Mario humble.
“Marilyn and I hope we gave our kids what our parents gave us. We passed on our love of making our own food and of the family being together to enjoy the pleasures of the table.”
The senior Batalis grew up in central Washington state. One of Armo’s grandfathers, originally from Tuscany, leased land from American Indians in the Yakima Valley. “I grew up on the farm. We were the only Italians on the Indian reservation,” he says. “Our family made or grew everything ourselves. We killed our own meat, milked our own cows and made prosciutto and salami, as well as wine and grappa. Marilyn’s family was the same.”
Another grandfather started an Italian import business in Seattle in 1903. It was called the Metropolitan Grocery, and it met with great success serving the growing Mediterranean community in the early years of the city’s growth.
When the Batalis set up housekeeping, raising their family in Federal Way in Seattle, Armo began working for Boeing as a chemical engineer, spending his days in the lab. But one day in 1976, as he tells it, he was offered a two-year assignment in Madrid, representing the firm to European buyers of Boeing aircraft. What could be bad? He rushed home and convened a family meeting. Hand count. Who wants to go?
“Mario, then 12, was jumping with excitement,” Mr. Batali says. “Dana, 11, wasn’t so sure. Gina, 10, would only go if we could take our dog, a Shih Tzu. We put everything in storage, including a brand-new Zenith TV and a 1975 Frigidaire. And we were off for Spain.”
The two-year stint turned into a 20-year adventure. The family loved the sociability of the Madrilenos and embraced the Spanish lifestyle completely. Growing up in a foreign capital with few other Americans in the community, the Batali children looked to family for social support.
“We were always together as a family, whether it was cooking at home, going to restaurants or spending weekends and vacations exploring the country,” Mr. Batali says. “We exposed ourselves food-wise to everything we could.”
The Spanish post was extended again and again. Mario Batali absorbed an appreciation for hearty, peasant-style cooking and developed a passionate belief in the pleasures of the table. He was a work in progress.
When it was time for the children to go to college, they had to choose East Coast schools because they were closer to Madrid: Dana chose Princeton University, Gina attended Connecticut College, and Mario went to Rutgers, concentrating on the golden age of Spanish theater. He also began working in a professional kitchen and felt its daily adrenaline rush.
Armo Batali was promoted to positions in Italy and England, finally wrapping up his 31 years with Boeing in London. “When we came back to the States, our dog was trilingual, and the appliances, avocado colored, I think, were in mint condition,” he said.
While his son was working his way up the New York restaurant ladder and already a rising star in the food world, Mr. Batali, back in Seattle, was faced with the blank slate of retirement. Retire? Not likely. He needed a conduit for his considerable energy and figured he might as well make a second career out of the thing he loved best: food. Specifically, the art of curing meat.
Mr. Batali made a 60-day trip to Italy in 1997 to learn the art and craft of making salumi from skilled, authentic Italian norcini — pig butchers and salumi experts. Originally, many of these men lived in the Umbrian town of Norcia, which is how they got their name. Now the term is generic.
In January 1999, Mr. Batali, confident of his skills and ready for business, opened Salumi diagonally across from the site where his grandfather had opened the first Italian food market in Seattle 96 years earlier. “We want Salumi to emulate the historical memories of the Batali family, its traditions of the communal table and the focus on warmth and family values,” he says.
Whereas his son’s New York handmade salumi is made from parts of the whole hog, Mr. Batali’s salumi is made from pork cheeks. “I order about 300 pounds of meat on Monday for delivery on Thursday,” he says. “It comes from a place in Graham, about five miles from Mount Ranier, which may be what makes it so good.”
He processes lomo, soppresata, coppa, tongue, pancetta and unusually flavored salamis, 14 in all. Thin slices held to the light reveal a mosaic of white fat and rosy meat bits, some embedded with spices, peppercorns and nuts.
But the best of show isn’t pork. It is lamb prosciutto, made in the manner of pork prosciutto but with a distinctly lamb flavor and a dark red hue. “When I sent some to the Italian butcher who taught me, he asked me for the directions how to make it,” Mr. Batali says.
He isn’t looking for business. He has more than he can handle. Still, he has plans. “We expect to expand the kitchen in the back and add eight more seats out here,” he says. “I want to teach chefs how to make salumi, and I’d like to sell some products to restaurants. I love doing this. I believe in passing on family values and traditions.”
Mario Batali and his wife are passing on those values to their family, too. “We cook together a lot and eat together all the time. We don’t make a big deal when we try something new. We just put it on the table and eat it,” Mr. Batali says. When he and his family travel to Seattle to visit his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, they do what they have always done: work together in the kitchen, then share the pleasures of the communal table. These days, they also talk shop.
Salumi’s address is 309 Third Ave. South (Pioneer Square), Seattle. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; phone 206/621-8772. The following recipes are from “The Babbo Cookbook”:
Prosciutto with black pepper fettunta and Winesap apple marmellata
1 cup sugar
4 Winesap apples, cored and cut into 1/4-inch half-moon slices
3 tablespoons Colman’s dry mustard
1 teaspoon mustard oil (available at specialty stores)
2 tablespoons black mustard seeds (available at specialty stores)
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more
1 bunch of baby spinach
Juice of 1 lemon
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
½ pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
4 1-inch slices of crusty peasant bread, toasted in a 400-degree oven for 2 minutes
To make the marmellata (marmalade), combine the sugar and 2 cups of water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the apples; cook over high heat for 10 minutes, or until they are tender but not falling apart.
While the fruit is cooking, place the dry mustard in a small bowl, and add water to form a thin paste, or slurry. Add the mustard oil, black mustard seeds, and a little salt and pepper to taste. Add this mixture to the fruit, and cook over high heat until the mixture is thick and syrupy, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Place the spinach in a large salad bowl, and toss it with the lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and a little salt and pepper to taste. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the 2 tablespoons of black pepper; mix well.
Divide the prosciutto evenly among 4 chilled dinner plates, spreading the slices across the plate. Top each serving with a mound of spinach. Place a generous dollop of the marmalade on each plate. Cut the toasts in half on the diagonal, and drizzle them with the pepper oil. Serve right away. Makes 4 servings.
Italian bacon and eggs
Sunny-side-up duck eggs and guanciale, a distinctly flavored bacon made from pork jowls and cheeks, make a memorable dish of bacon and eggs, Italian style. The frisee salad adds color, flavor and crunch, and the vinaigrette pulls it all together. Find the duck eggs and guanciale in Italian specialty markets. Or substitute chicken eggs and bacon or pancetta. If truffles are unavailable, the vinaigrette can be used without them.
1/4 pound guanciale, pancetta or bacon, cut into pieces about 2 inches long
1 head of frisee, cut into bite-size pieces
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
4 duck or chicken eggs
4 1-inch slices of crusty peasant bread, grilled or toasted
1/4 cup truffle vinaigrette (recipe follows)
In a 12- to 14-inch saute pan, heat the guanciale, pancetta or bacon over medium-low heat until most of the fat is rendered. Remove the pieces to a plate lined with paper towels, and discard the fat.
In a large bowl, combine the frisee, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon juice, and salt and pepper; toss well. Set aside.
In a nonstick pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter over high heat until it foams and subsides. Crack one egg into the pan, taking care not to break the yolk, and cook without turning for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the white is cooked through and the yolk is sealed. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the pan. Repeat with the remaining butter and eggs, working with two pans, if possible, to speed up the process.
While the final egg cooks, drizzle each bread slice with some of the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Halve each piece of toast on the bias. Divide the frisee salad evenly among 4 dinner plates, and top each with one egg. Sprinkle the bacon over the salads, drizzle each plate with some of the vinaigrette, and serve immediately with the toast. Makes 4 servings.
2 tablespoons canned black truffles, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine the black truffles and vinegar in a medium bowl; whisk together to blend and break up the truffle pieces. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 1 cup. Use leftover vinaigrette on salad or cooked vegetables.
A salumi sampling
“Salumi” is the Italian word for cold cuts. Thinly sliced, they are served as antipasti and for sandwiches. Depending on the type, the meats are ground, spiced, stuffed and aged, not cooked.
Common sandwich salami is just one type of salumi. The most famous of the salumi family is prosciutto, Italian ham that is salted, cured, pressed and aged from 15 to 20 months. Traditional salumi ingredients are coarsely ground pork (lamb and beef are also used), salt, pepper and garlic. Artisans add spices such as cayenne, cracked fennel, paprika and chilies; some use curry, mace, nutmeg and a touch of ginger. You can sample salumi from the deli counters of most supermarkets and Italian grocery stores.
Testa. Head cheese is made from tongue, cheeks and other parts of the head bound together with natural gelatin.
Bresaola. Air-cured beef that is cabernet-colored and richly flavored.
Soppresa. Mild or hot, the coarsely ground meat is highly seasoned.
Capicollo. A salumi classic made from seasoned pork butts.
Copa secca. Dry-cured pork shoulder butt that is a party tray regular.
Mortadella. This smooth, tender, pink emulsion of pork is studded with cubes of fat and occasionally pistachios. The version from the city of Bologna became the most famous. People nicknamed it Bologna, which was shortened, in the United States, to baloney.
Pancetta. Tuscan bacon is dry-cured and rolled. It is an important ingredient in Italian dishes. Like bacon, it is cooked before eating.
Genoa salami. Most traditional and common of the salumi family in America, the pork shoulder meat can be spiced in many versions, with or without garlic.
Sweet soprasotta. This sandwich favorite is formed from whole pieces of unground pork and aged like salami.
Pepperoni. A spicy blend of pork and seasonings that stands up to any pizza sauce.