It starts like this...
The Butter Bitch and I are driving home from work late one evening in early May. Both of us officially work on the east side of Lake Washington and have worked nearly 12 hours. The sun has set, but traffic is very light at this time of night. Neither of us wants to cook and neither has a strong idea about dinner. We want food, but we don't know what kind of food. To top matters, we live in a new neighborhood and are unfamiliar with most of the new offerings. We could go to our beloved Pub, but that will leave us with a 5-mile drive on city streets with bellies full of beer and tasty food.
"Do you feel adventurous?" I ask the Butter Bitch.
"What do you have in mind?"
"It's a plan. A clever plan." I really don't have a clever plan. I just want to try a place in Ballard that has wine and offers food. The place is small and looked cozy when I bicycled past it. We disagree about whether the place really has food, but she agrees to trust my judgment. If I am wrong, we have a fallback plan involving our old Pub, even though that means a very late evening.
To our surprise, we will discover not only a great local spot, but locally made meats from Seattle's Salumi, just as our involvement with Ethicurean is beginning.
If I tell you where the wine place is, Neville will have me killed.
Neville is an adorable Shar-Pei who is very friendly, but also protective of the bar in which we have dinner. We later see him corner a brown lab that someone else brought to the bar (Neville had a bone that day and didn't want to share). Neville is owned by one of the place's owners, Aaron, who welcomes us in and assures us that he will be open long enough for us to have wine and food.
The place is small and comfortable and feels like more like a bar than a ritzy place to sip and swirl glasses of wine. As we chat with Aaron, we discover that the place used to be a regular old beer bar until he turned it into a wine bar a few years ago. The wines are regional and international and include "respected" wines, such as Oregon Pinots and Washington Cabernets, as well as little-known wines including a white wine from Caldwell, Idaho. The place is empty except for us, not surprising on a musician-less Tuesday near 9 PM (they have musicians on several other nights of the week).
Several items on the food menu catch our eyes. First, there is the broad selection of cheeses and organic breads, the latter from Tall Grass Bakery. Second, there is the list of local meats from a place called Salumi. Aaron tells us that the proprietor is Mario Batali's father, and mentions that the father followed the son to apprentice with a Tuscan butcher. We had read Bill Buford's New Yorker article about his apprenticeship with the same butcher. Our mouths water at the idea of a plate of meats, cheeses, bread and fruits, not least because we are hungry.
I don't know what about us betrays our growing interest to write about the place, but Aaron looks up as he pours our second glasses of wine and informs us that he likes to keep his place local.
"I don't want write-ups," he tells us. I can see the seriousness on his otherwise friendly face. By now, we have told him that we are newcomers to the neighborhood. He indicates what he is and is providing in his little place, and makes clear that people who want the experience of a big wine place are directed to Portalis or one of the other big shops in Ballard. His place is for socializing, good conversation, good food and wine, and good music on certain nights.
By writing about the place, I'm trying not to give away so much information that people will crowd his establishment. I won't tell you where the place is. I won't even describe it well, other than to call it a bar. If you come to Seattle and like wine, the Butter Bitch and I might take you to the place--or we might take you to a different wine establishment. There are a number of places similar to Aaron's in Seattle (and Portland), but this one is the only one that feels cozy and friendly.
I was telling you about Salumi
The point of this post is to talk about Salumi and their delicious meats. Delicious is a good way to describe the four meats we had that night. There were four meats on the two trays that we had: hot soppresata, finocchiona (pictured at the top of the page), salami, and mole (pictured to the right). The soppresata is a hot pork and garlic sausage, while the salami is flavor-wise similar to other salamis that you have had, except that both of them are fresh and chewier than cured salamis. The salami also has a bit of ginger. The finocchiona contains cracked pepper and fennel, while the mole is a delightful mixture of chocolate, cinnamon, and chipotle peppers. The meats are slightly chewy, prompting the Butter Bitch to comment, "Muscly." The pieces have large globs of fat, but they also have a lot of meat. This stuff isn't made with filler. This is quality meat.
Getting our own piece of the pig
The Dairy Queen encourages us to write about Salumi, the source of the delicious meats, but other projects occupy our time. Our task isn't helped by Salumi's hours of operation: Tuesday-Friday, 11 AM to 4 PM. Located in downtown Seattle, Salumi is not close enough for us to visit during lunch. In June, I begin a two-month period of working exclusively from our home in Ballard, which still isn't close enough for a visit unless I take an extended lunch. My project keeps me busy during those two months, and it isn't until the end of a long week (yesterday, in fact) that I manage to get away from work early. I tell my boss that I don't want to cross the 50-hour threshold this week, and she agrees to have me leave work early.
Getting to Salumi is so hard that I would happily describe the place even if they asked me not to. I look up Salumi using Mapquest, which tells me to take the James Street exit from I-5, stay on 6th Avenue until I can turn right onto James Street, and then take a left on 3rd Avenue and "go straight". Straight is a relative term when navigating Seattle's downtown street grid. If you look up "309 3rd Avenue S" (Salumi's address) on Mapquest, you may notice several oddities. For one thing, the avenues run diagonally until the reach Yesler Way, at which point they run straight down. For another thing, the red star indicating your destination will appear to be located on "2nd Ave Ext S" which is east of "2nd Ave S". I fail to notice these important details, which is a big mistake.
As I approach Yesler Way, I realize that going "straight" with the main road will lead me onto Yesler. Luckily, afternoon traffic is light, and I scoot to the right and onto the suddenly narrower 3rd Avenue, only to encounter a diagonal street and what appears to be the continuation of 3rd Avenue as 2nd Avenue. This does not surprise me--in our old neighborhood is a street sign that shows 1st Ave N, 53rd St NE, and 53rd St N, with the NE sign placed to the west of the other two signs. Seattle is full of twisty streets that bend and become a different street, such as where 56th St NE becomes 55th St NE.
I park and walk around the streets, trying to discern where 3rd Avenue reappears. I walk up to Yesler and wonder if the shop is further up the hill, but the street numbers point me south toward King Street Station. Discouraged, I get into my car and turn south onto 3rd Avenue. My plan is to loop south and west around Qwest Field and get onto Highway 99 and head home. I notice a small street on the other side of 2nd Avenue Extension S and cross, hoping for a shortcut. To my right is a row of trees shading the sidewalk, a row of shops, and the sign I have been looking for--Salumi!. It turns out that this part of 3rd Avenue S is sandwiched between 2nd Avenue to the west and 2nd Avenue Extension S to the east, further evidence that street planning in Seattle is less a profession than a post-modernist art. I park.
In the dark shade of a nearby tree, I finally spot the street sign that would have helped me find my destination.
A narrow space smelling of cured meats
Salumi was started by Armandino Batali after his experience apprenticing for a Tuscan butcher. The elder Batali is a former process engineer at Boeing, an occupation that may make images of industrial production come to some minds. I am comforted by this background, because process-oriented people tend to take a great deal of care with whatever they choose to do. The storefront is narrow and cramped, with most of the space taken up by a cooler, display case, and sandwich preparation area. On the left side of the shop is a line of people waiting to order meats or buy sandwiches. When I arrive, the line extends to the door and shrinks only a little as closing time approaches.
The shop sells sandwiches made from their sausages as well as soups and salads. They sell sausages for take-away, but a small sign warns that during busy periods they may not be able to slice sausages. I take in this warning and stand in line, hopeful that I will not be turned away. A large group slows our progress, and I over hear the woman at the meat slicer repeatedly tell someone that she has just enough prosciutto for an order of two sandwiches. I wonder if this is the regular prosciutto or the lamb prosciutto that has caught my eye.
The front of the shop, as I mentioned, has a large cooler. The cooler has a glass display that shows a number of chunks of ham hanging from a bar to age and a few boxes of organic produce for the sandwiches. Next to the cooler is a counter that has a woman at a meat slicer, another woman who takes orders, a third woman who is in charge of making sandwiches, and at the end a woman who handles the money.
The walls have pictures of Batali's maternal grandfather, who opened an Italian import food store over 100 years ago. Further inside, I see shelves containing all of his son Mario's books. In the back of the storefront are a handful of tables around which people are seated, intent on their meals and saying little. A few people stand in front of a bookshelf that appears to be part of a nook. They have the looks of a private group, but it could be that there aren't any seats left.
The man in front of me informs the woman behind the counter that he is picking up an order. He didn't need to wait in line, she tells him, and disappears into the meat cooler. A moment later, she reappears and asks for his first name and returns to the cooler. He takes his package and moves down to the cashier. It's my turn.
I politely ask the second woman, who seems to be the organizer, if they are too busy for me to buy salami to take away. She gestures to the big-armed woman at the meat slicer and says, "Talk to her." I turn to the other woman and repeat my question. "Do you want chunks?" she asks. Yes, that will be fine. I don't need anything sliced. "Well, what do you want then?"
I ask if they have any mole. No, that is out. What about the lamb prosciutto? Also out. I don't think to ask for the finocchiona because there is a sign next to it saying "out". Salumi salami? No, that's out too. This is the end of their week, and I am sure they would have more products if I came on Tuesday, but my hopes begin to wane. I begin to feel like I am in a cheese shop sketch. But they do have the oregano, which is made with herbs from Bainbridge Island, and there is a chunk of hot soppresata. I say that I will take the oregano. The woman tells me to wait a moment and steps into the cooler. A moment later, she appears with a chunk of the salami and tells me that she will be glad to have it taken off her hands. Two salamis is a good haul. Even if they aren't our favorites, I will have variety to take home for dinner. We haven't had the oregano, so that will be a new experience.
The woman asks me again if I want the soppresata. No, that's okay. "You sure?" Well, okay, I'll take it. The soppresata does look good, what with the big globs of fat and the eerie red color. The woman at the cash register looks at my haul and says, "Big spender!" The salami hasn't been cheap--$36 for the three chunks, which must weigh nearly three pounds. We will have salami for dinner, and I will have many salami sandwiches during the next few days.
Salumi does accept phone orders, and we have vacation coming soon. A welcome break from house painting might include a chunk of mole. Tonight, we will have salami and fresh pasta made with basil and garlic from our CSA box.
Note: The Butter Bitch and I have swapped our usual publication slots. She will post part 2 of this story on Tuesday and describe the salami's taste as well as what else we had for dinner. The two salamis pictured above are from the Salumi site.