Joe Van Sickle is serious about sandwiches, which is why he is here in front of the deli counter at Corti Brothers in East Sacramento, ordering up a “Da Vinci” for lunch. It’s a mouthwatering masterpiece worthy of its name: sweet Italian sausage cooked to a gorgeous golden brown, glistening slivers of yellow-and-red roasted peppers, and mozzarella cheese, all drizzled with garlic aioli and nestled in a crusty French roll.
“Any time I want something that is really good quality, this is where I come. I’m here once or twice a week,” said Van Sickle, a registered nurse who drives miles out of his way to shop here.
Corti Brothers holds down the corner of 59th Street and Folsom Boulevard. It calls itself an Italian grocery store. That’s like a Jaguar dealership calling itself a car lot.
Wide shelves groan under the weight of food items as familiar as Cheerios and Heinz ketchup or as entrancingly exotic as an ivy-flower honey from Tuscany, sun-dried figs from Turkey, Indian cashews, a shottsuru fish sauce from Japan, Italian black truffles.
Shoppers can choose from 200 different beers, 250 pastas, and olive oils from five continents. You can find some 100 cheeses—a Basque-style sheep-milk cheese from Sonoma County, a lovely Morbier with a vein of vegetable ash, and a Spanish manchego that would find favor in the land of Don Quixote. Also on hand are an equal number or more of deli meats and sausages, such as wonderful smoked bacons, Spanish chorizo, and a dozen kinds of salami.
The inventory reflects the singularly refined palate of co-owner Darrell Corti, 71, the globe-trotting gourmet whose father, Frank, and uncle Gino opened the original Corti Brothers in downtown Sacramento in 1947.
“I like to encourage people to break out of their shopping routines,” said Corti, a familiar figure around the store with his thatch of snowy hair and indigo-blue shopkeeper’s smock.
In culinary circles, Corti is a legend. He is famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of food and wine and can expound with equal authority on Uzbeki dried melons, Greek fava beans, and Japanese tamari sauces. Alice Waters is a fan. So is former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, who wrote in a memoir that Corti was introduced to her as the man “who knows more about food and wine than anyone else in America.”
Few argue the point, and they are certainly not Corti’s customers. Retirees Gene and Marylin Graves have shopped at Corti Brothers for 20 years. On this afternoon, they are in search of the perfect pasta for a beef-and-pork lasagna, something they’d never be able to find back home in tiny Penn Valley in the Sierra foothills. Corti picks out an egg-and-semolina variety then explains why it is the ideal choice for lasagna alla Bolognese and offers up instructions on how to prepare it.
The Corti Brothers wine department isn’t the biggest in town, but it may be the most selective. Of the thousands of bottles that the staff samples each year, only a few make it onto the shelves. You can pick up an 1834 Tokaji Essencia or a fresh-from-the-cask beaujolais nouveau. Under its own label, Corti Brothers sells a low-alcohol, slightly sparkly white wine made from a grape created by a viticulturist at the University of California, Davis.
The meat department is a carnivore’s cornucopia. Mangalitsa pork, Navajo-churro lamb, Wagyu and Piedmontese beefs, capons, and squab are stock in trade. If you need a crowd-wowing crown roast of lamb for a special occasion, look no further. For a humble burger night, give a try to the mixture of prime chuck roast, prime top round, and choice brisket called Mike’s Ultimate Blend after master meat cutter Mike Carroll. You could say it’s popular.
“If we don’t have it, people get upset, almost to the point of crying,” said meat clerk Sam Day.
Prepared foods roll out of Corti Brothers on-site kitchen seven days a week, under the direction of chef Andrew Cordaro, who has been with the store for 30 years. The house-brand ravioli, which Corti proudly points out is Sacramento’s oldest continuously-made food product, pops out of a machine that is 28 feet long and dates to the 1960s. Once a week, longtime cannoli maker Micki Borelli comes in to prepare shells and creams that are sold as a kit to maintain the pastry's crispness. Corti Brothers also makes a Seville-style marmalade from local fruit and a mincemeat prepared from an old English recipe.
For many out-of-towners, Corti Brothers is a stop on the tourist trail. First timers sometimes learn about the store through the quarterly newsletter that Corti has been writing since 1967 and sends out by email and snail mail. It’s a shopping guide, cookbook, travelogue, and history lesson rolled into one. In a recent newsletter, Corti traced the origins of mess-ciüa, a grain-and-bean soup from Italy’s Liguria region, to stevedores’ wives who picked up bits of spillage from sacks unloaded from ships.
Corti uses the newsletter to proselytize about his food passions. On the subject of balsamic vinegar, he can really get going. Cheap balsamic vinegar is nothing more than vinegar and caramel coloring, Corti says. The good stuff is aceto balsamico tradizionale, and it’s a revelation, made from boiled down grape must that is slowly aged in wood casks. Be prepared to dig deep: A 100-milliliter bottle can run three figures. But Corti swears it’s so tasty that you can sip it as a digestif.
You can follow Corti on his culinary travels at home and abroad at Corti Brothers YouTube channel.