Corti Brothers: a supermarket in Sacramento
Outcry over the impending closure of longstanding specialty grocer Corti Brothers united the region’s best chefs, loyal customers and local food lovers. So what makes Corti’s unique?
Sacramento, CA 95819
Sacramento businesses are in a state of flux—out with the old, in with the new—many chasing the “world class” designation. So how did a careworn building full of food become more than just a grocery store, earning an international reputation without millions of dollars in its coffers?
What is it about Corti Brothers that inspires such passion?
It was a punishingly hot Wednesday afternoon in the Corti Brothers parking lot: Everyone was celebrating, but it should have been a protest rally. Neighborhood patrons, prominent chefs and media gathered to pay homage to the store and the man, Darrell Corti, because his supermarket was supposed to lose its lease this October. Good Eats, a new local grocery venture led by investor Michael Teel, was lined up to take over Corti’s East Sacramento location, but backed out in the 11th hour because of unfavorable press and unprecedented outrage. California Strategies, a prominent public-relations firm working pro bono to assist Corti’s, had organized the event to protest the supermarket’s closing.
It now was a party.
Some of Sacramento’s most distinguished local chefs milled about, chatting underneath the storefront’s shaded overhang, ceremoniously dressed in white chef’s jackets—except Rick Mahan, who rolled up late on his bike wearing a Waterboy T-shirt and shorts. Mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson was there, shaking hands and posing for pictures, his campaign aide sporting a form-fitting business suit and 4-inch patent-leather peeptoes.
Chef Biba Caggiano looked chic in coral-colored beads, and was first on the mic. She spoke briefly of her longtime friendship with Darrell, noting she would have “packed her bags” upon arriving in Sacramento 40 years ago if he hadn’t been in town. Her voice was thick with emotion, and other chefs—Randy Paragary, Mai Pham, Patrick Mulvaney—also came forward to offer similar tributes, referring to Darrell and his supermarket as a “treasure” again and again. The whole thing was quite touching; drops rolled out from beneath my sunglasses—I couldn’t really tell if I was crying or sweating. It must have been a little of both.
Throughout the proceedings Darrell stood blushing, his hand covering his mouth. When he came forward to make remarks, he was gracious and funny. He thanked his employees first, then his customers and finally the “food community.” He thanked California Strategies, wryly acknowledging the media juggernaut sparked by Good Eats’ now-defunct takeover: “I couldn’t do this. I don’t even know how to stop it.”
And he ended, to applause, with good comedic timing: “As my father would say: ‘Why aren’t you all in Corti Brothers shopping?!’”
Which is exactly what I did after the rally: roaming the store, picking up a can of Spanish tuna and a bottle of rosé from Provence, chatting with friends and employees, thinking about what made Corti Brothers so special.
“How long have you been shopping at Corti’s?”
I asked this of everyone I encountered at Corti’s the next afternoon, beginning with a man in his 20s, who quipped, “About three minutes.” He was a first-timer, who’d seen media coverage of the rally the day before and stopped by. And he quickly turned the tables, questioning me on the state of Corti’s lease negotiations. I told him what I knew—that Corti’s still had to renegotiate its lease with its landlord, who was poised to receive twice what he’d been paying—and moved on.
A white-haired man stood with a cart by the cheese case, inspecting a tub of mascarpone. I approached and asked if he was up for an interview, but he interrupted and, in an Italian accent, said, “I don’t speak English.”
Store chef Andrew Cordaro, however, speaks English quite eloquently. I spotted his round-cheeked, toque-topped visage by the swinging double doors near the meat department, which lead to the back of the store. He’s worked at Corti’s for 23 years, a lengthy tenure that’s by no means unusual. His first time shopping at Corti’s was in his teens, at the Birdcage shopping-center location in Citrus Heights, in 1979. His father, a Sicilian from New York City, was “used to getting prosciutto and coppa and olives, good olive oil,” so when they moved to Northern California and Corti’s was the only source for those specialty items, they’d drive into town from Grass Valley. “It’s a distance, but it was worth the trip,” Cordaro said.
I asked him what he liked to buy at Corti’s, and he replied, “Definitely the wine.” He also echoed other customers, saying that he splurges for Christmas and gets a “nice panettone,” which Corti imports from Italy each holiday season. And Cordaro himself prepares a food item that many customers consider an integral part of any holiday meal: ravioli. He works on a traditional, 28-foot-long ravioli machine, and during the busy winter season uses half a ton of flour, making more than 3,000 boxes.
Lisa Wright has probably purchased a box or two of Cordaro’s pasta. A distinguished looking woman in a black-sheath dress, Wright said that she’d been shopping at Corti’s for a quarter-century, despite the fact that she drives “a distance” to get there. Specifically, she loves shopping for wine. “It’s fun to talk to the guys in the wine department,” she said.
But for Wright, as for many Corti’s customers, it’s about more than just high-quality groceries: It’s a matter of trust. “I have absolute confidence in the butcher and the fishmonger. We always get all of our holiday meats here,” Wright explained, noting that if Corti’s were to close, it’d be the death of “the old-fashioned neighborhood market.
“We all know all the people that work here by name. My kids have grown up here. This is a grocery store, and … a friend!”
Corti’s deli counter is always a hive of activity, and I dared not interrupt workers with questions. The deli employees evince a businesslike stern-ness, dealing with a crush of customers, who buzz near the glass case during lunch and dinner rushes. Tensions run high as hungry shoppers anxiously wait for sandwiches, fresh mozzarella or samosas, and there’s a rigid code of conduct—and woe for shoppers who don’t know to take a number to place an order.
I spotted the young 20-something man from earlier. It’d been at least 30 minutes, but he was still shopping, now conferring with Donal Smith, Corti’s serious and soft-spoken wine merchant of more than 20 years. A new devout shopper, perhaps?
There’s definitely something about Corti Brothers that spurs loyalty. Rick Mindermann is Darrell’s right-hand man, and looks the part of the old-timey grocer, right down to the perfect mustache. He’s been working at Corti’s for 30 years, starting as a courtesy clerk, eventually promoted by Darrell’s father, Frank, to management on his 21st birthday. Now, he’s Darrell’s personal assistant and jack-of-all-trades. So what’s the No. 1 thing that makes Corti’s an institution? “The mind of Darrell Corti,” Mindermann quickly replied. “His experiences, his lifelong experiences: He arguably has one of the most sensitive palates in the country, if not the world.”
Without a doubt, Darrell has immeasurable food knowledge. He speaks multiple languages, and, according to Mindermann, “is an international ambassador of food and wine.
“Knowledge is power, and Darrell has power in the food and wine world, and he applies it in probably the best way that one can apply any kind of power: He does it to share with other people,” Mindermann effused. “He cares about his employees. He cares about his customers.”
And all kinds of customers shop Corti’s. Dan Corcoran looks more like the kind of guy you would see at a Food Not Bombs table than shopping at a specialty grocer. He sports a T-shirt championing organic farming, which reads “Dirt first,” and is passionate about “high-quality meats” and Corti’s “amazing” liquor selection, which includes oddball imports like Cynar, an artichoke liqueur, which he bought his wife for her birthday. Corcoran conceded that Corti Brothers is “not the cheapest,” but said he shops here when he wants to choose from “seven different kinds of pasta.
“You’re not going to get that at Safeway. This is the only store that’s left. We already lost the Italian [Importing] Mercato by Trader Joe’s,” he reminded.
It was almost closing time and the store was clearing out when I spotted a gregarious man bantering back and forth with a woman at the deli. I asked if I could talk to him about Corti’s, and he surprised me by introducing himself as Joe Corti, whose father, Gino, was the other Corti brother who founded the store. He’s no longer involved with the grocer and works for an Italian food importer. He cited the Italian headcheese and Pellegrino Aranciata (which he sells) as his favorite Corti’s items before boisterously trading jibes with Kevin McGuigan, another longtime wine merchant.
Another shopper, Stephanie Diegler, beckoned me over and told her story. She’s been a Corti’s patron for decades, especially during the holidays. Her son left for college in Boston last year, and wasn’t going to be able to fly home for Thanksgiving. Then one day, Diegler got an e-mail from her son: “He tells me he wants to come home for Thanksgiving—this is gonna make me cry—because Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without, of course, being with his family and making that traditional trip to Corti Brothers.
“That tells you the kind of store that is. It’s not just a grocery store. It touched my heart, and that’s what this store means to people, it doesn’t just mean food on a shelf. It means family and it means tradition, so we’re delighted that it’s here to stay.”