The Meat Goes on at the New Salumi
Armandino Batali is holding court at Salumi, just like in the old days, but today there’s a white wine in his hand. A woman in her early 40s with an outdoorsy radiance approaches him with a plate. It’s not heaped with Salumi’s signature salami, perked with ginger and almost kaleidoscopic flecks of fat. But rather, chocolate chip cookies.
“They’re made with our pancetta,” she tells the octogenarian who founded this hallowed Italian deli two decades ago. “Well, it’s your pancetta, really!”
At its grand opening party Salumi’s new location doesn’t look so very different from its past life as Rain Shadow Meats Squared: brighter lights, shelves of tasteful merch, coolers of takeaway sandwiches where rib eyes and pork shoulders used to be. It’s three blocks and an era away from the shotgun storefront where Armandino, after retirement from Boeing, first unleashed his cured meats and porchetta upon Seattle in 1999.
He hung up his butcher’s apron long ago and handed operations off to his daughter, Gina, and her husband, Brian D’Amato, back in 2007. A decade later, they too dreamt of retirement, but lacked the sort of long-term growth plans potential buyers required.
“We worked our butts off—so hard, we didn’t really look forward,” says Gina Batali. And yet she and Brian, Salumi’s curer-in-chief, could never produce enough to meet demand.
A mutual acquaintance connected her with Clara Veniard and Martinique Grigg (she of the proffered cookie plate). Over covert coffees at Grand Central, she learned the two friends were huge Salumi fans, not to mention Harvard MBAs and fellow food lovers looking to buy a business together. Also, “they’re both moms,” notes Gina, a proprietor known to pause midlunch rush to hug a regular’s new baby.
She liked the idea of her family’s carefully crafted product being accessible to more people, but also sought the sort of new owners who would retain the deli side of the business, and its longtime employees.
In October 2017, Veniard and Grigg signed papers, donned hairnets, and immersed themselves in the world of grinds and fermentation. Suddenly this Seattle institution—homespun right down to Gina’s mother, Marilyn, making gnocchi in the shop’s front window—had performance reviews and co-CEOs who work with an executive coach.
But Salumi’s new paradigm feels rooted in genuine fandom. When Grigg noticed a “for lease” sign in Rain Shadow Meats Squared’s former window, she knew the timing made no sense—they were readying a huge production facility in Kent, with the potential to double Salumi’s production and then some. “But this was pretty much the only space where we could maintain the essence of Salumi and stay in Pioneer Square,” says Grigg. “We had to do it.” Shortly after this past Thanksgiving, Salumi’s new owners upped the ante on Gina’s wish.
A sign at the door issues crisp and immediate instructions: Veer left for the register dedicated to speedy prewrapped cold sandwiches. Right to order off the menu. Veniard’s long dark ponytail is visible behind the counter; she’s probably the only member of her Harvard MBA class working a cash register today.
Salumi’s menu also received an efficiency makeover, which admittedly reduces the frustration of being stuck in line behind some indecisive visitor who saw this place on a Travel Channel rerun. The original breadth of options remains, but a curated roster of sandwiches supersedes the old series of choose-your-own-adventure chalkboard lists. Salumi veteran Nancy Karis helped determine optimal combos: classics, like spicy mole salami with the cooling properties of fresh mozzarella, plus a few newcomers like the Toscana, which adds a swipe of goat cheese, and a vaguely California vibe to layers of fennel-rich finocchiona salami and a chunky fennel salsa.
“Some people like the charm of that,” Grigg says of the Disneyland-level wait times of Salumi days of yore. She says the new space sees even more customers, but on four separate visits, I have a sandwich in hand within about 10 minutes.
The porchetta is still sloppy and unctuous, fennel flavors unmistakable even in meat that’s roasted into shredded submission. It’s still stuffed into chewy Macrina rolls the size of a handbag. After all, it’s the same recipes, and the same staff members lined up in this larger, shinier workspace, hoisting the famed fist-size meatballs from the heated vessel filled with sauce so deep red it borders on burgundy. It was hard to share those family recipes, Gina confesses, particularly her grandmother Leonetta’s meatballs. She stayed on for a bit to help with the deli. During the transition, she says, “I carried my fork around and, you know, it just has to be the same or I don’t really want to be around it.”
The board of daily specials hangs beneath the register, but the more streamlined menu above lets your gaze linger here longer, especially on Salumi’s rotating soups, woefully underheralded bowls like a chowder of potato and kale with shreds of mole salami, or smoky tomato that’s every bit as spiced and savory as carefully cured meat.
Love for Salumi has always been a funny alchemy of food and story. The paper-wrapped sandwich as a badge of honor that proclaims, I survived that wait. Word that the family of celebrity chef Mario Batali runs a Seattle sandwich shop (that fun fact became distinctly less fun after some prominent #MeToo accusations).
And the story evolves.
A basic chop salad crept onto the menu over the summer but another new arrival, that pancetta chocolate chip cookie, had to wait until Seattle’s Italian mainstay moved into its larger kitchen. Though their inspiration is more NYC’s millennial-hip Milk Bar than anybody’s nonna, the cookies have a homemade look to them, with irregular golden edges and haphazard scatters of bacon.
“I never would have thought of this in a thousand years,” Armandino Batali said when he sampled one at the grand opening. “I like it,” he added after a thoughtful chew. Still, “I hope they always serve soup.”