WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
Cured with Love
In the salumi of Armandino Batali, passion and reverence wed
ONCE WHEN HE was 3, my son Henry had a chance to dine at a tiny trattoria in Bologna, Italy. It was, if I recall correctly, on a cobbled street off the corner of the Piazza Santo Stefano. His mother, Betsy, and I had the good fortune of joining him.
Seated at a Formica-topped table, we had crusty bread without butter, red wine from an unlabeled bottle, and for appetizers, cured meats or "salumi." The proprietress brought Henry a breadstick and little glass of milk. He nibbled at the salumi and drank the milk. We had bowls of soup and she gave Henry a shallow dish with a spoon, demonstrating how we could put spoons full of our soup into his bowl where it would quickly cool so he could pick out the vegetables. For the main course, we had lasagna, followed by bitter greens, very lightly dressed, and for dessert, a pear and some cheese. It was one of the best lunches of all time.
Naturally, we all fell in love with this woman, and when she kissed Henry on the head and called him "un angelo," he asked me, "Is she one of my grandmothers?"
"In a way," I said, "she is."
Ten years later we took Henry and his younger brother, Erich, to lunch at Salumi, Armandino Batali's wonderful hole-in-the-wall of a restaurant just off that piazza known as Pioneer Square in Seattle. Batali brought a selection of cured meats to the table and pointed them out to the boys. "This one," he said, "is beef tongue."
"Whoa!" said Erich.
"Cool," said Henry.
"And this," said Batali, "is finochiona and this is cutatello." The boys set about tasting these cold cuts very seriously, and so did their mother and I. Well, they were serious; we were more like swooning. And Batali seemed to enjoy feeding us as much as we enjoyed eating. He brought bread and lasagna and offered us wine from a big bottle at the table we shared with the other diners.
"He's so nice," whispered Henry.
"Kind of like a grandfather?" I said. His mother had to smile. It was all so familiar. A stone's throw from Salumi's present location, at 309 Third Ave. S., Armandino's own grandfather opened a store in 1903.
"That store became Merlino's," Batali explained. Today Merlino's is a distributor of fine imported Italian foods. "But back then, he sold a lot of what I'm selling — pork cheeks, ox tails, cured meats." After 25 years with Boeing (he was based in Spain, representing the company to European buyers of the big jets), Batali entered the food business. His entry came late in life but with a rich heritage of Seattle Italian food backing him up.
Family portraits along the restaurant wall show generations of Merlinos and Batalis at holiday tables. The latest generation includes Armandino's son, Mario, of television and cookbook fame who wowed the East Coast with his restaurants, Babbo, Lupa and Esca.
"I love Armandino," said Betsy, "and I want to come back for one of those dinners." We'd heard that once a month, Batali opened Salumi for private parties of 10 or 12. As soon as we could, we booked a table and ended up celebrating a friend's birthday at the same communal table more than a year later. (It takes awhile to get in.)
Our dinner began as the lunch had begun, with a selection of cured meats: spicy soppreseta, aromatic Tuscan finochiona, hard, dry Salumi-signature salami, lamb prosciutto and country-style coppa. Then came bruschetta with duck and onions caramelized in duck fat. We had a mixed grill of shellfish, baby octopus and angulas, which are very tiny eels, no larger than spaghetti noodles. There was Coilletti Scallopini, a veal stuffed with spinach and parsley in the style of Armandino's great-grandmother.
"The veal," explained Batali, "is from Roslyn, Washington. That's where my great-grandmother lived." Roslyn, just west of Cle Elum, is known in our time as the town where the television show "Northern Exposure" was filmed. But at the turn of the last century, it was a booming mining town, and there, Batali's grandfather earned enough money in the mines to open his first store in Seattle.
After those "appetizers," we had tagliarini (thin noodles made that afternoon) with fresh truffles. Then came Leonetta's Artichokes. I cannot remember how Leonetta fit into the family tree, but I will never forget her artichokes, stuffed with garlic and herbs and roasted in olive oil.
At last, the piece de la resistance, a roasted baby pig, stuffed with lavender and served with cipollini onions. The lavender aroma had permeated the meat, which fell from the bones like leaves from a tree. After the pig, we had a salad of bitter greens simply dressed in olive oil and vinegar. The salad was followed by a slate of cheeses including Fontina and Santa Teresa from the island of Sardinia, all of them accompanied by a dark chestnut honey.
Finally, we had Gina's Crostata di Limone, a lemon tart made by Armandino's daughter. When she's not making lemon tarts Gina is working beside her husband, Brian D'Amato, another Boeing alumnus who seems to be at Salumi serving customers whenever the place is open. Or she might be telecommuting for General Electric where she worked her way up the corporate ladder before semi-retiring to raise the couple's two daughters on Bainbridge Island.
I have two sons on Bainbridge Island, and I keep hoping that one of my sons might develop an interest in one of those Batali-D'Amato girls. That way, one day, when my grandchildren ask me if that nice old man or woman feeding them the really delicious Italian food is their grandfather or grandmother, I'll be able to say yes.
Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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