A Batali Family Christmas

Try as you may, you can't franchise family.

Inside the front door of Salumi, in the narrow corridor where customers wait to place their orders, there's a bit of history nailed on the wall over their heads. It's one of a number of fading family photographs, dating from the late 1930s: a snap of two dozen people of all ages crammed round a table for Christmas dinner. Only one thing sets this photo apart from those bought by the yard to adorn the walls of chain restaurants like Buca di Beppo. This one isn't decor; it's alive. See the little boy in his mother's arms way at the back of the picture? Now turn around and look for a gray-haired man wearing glasses, an apron, and a baseball cap. That's the little boy today: Armandino Batali, owner of Salumi. Armandino's at Salumi nearly every day. His older sister Isolina comes in only on Fridays; she's the gorgeous, gawky young woman in the picture, and the older woman cutting tender long rolls of potato dough into gnocchi. You may also see a slight, gray-haired woman toting boxes of San Pellegrino bigger than herself; that's Marilyn, Mrs. Batali. She's not in the old photo; she's a LaFramboise, a substrand of the Merlino family. She and Armandino grew up in the same neck of the woods, over by Yakima, but they didn't meet till a joint dance of her all-girl and his all-boy Catholic high schools brought them together. They've been together pretty much ever since. Salumi—the name means "cured meats" in Italian—is the kind of place you'd be delighted but not surprised to happen upon in Brooklyn or Newark, tenuously hanging on to tradition in a neighborhood inexorably losing its ethnic character. It's not the kind of place you expect to find in Seattle. Salumi is not exactly what it seems. Armandino spent 25 years working for the Lazy B, much of it representing the firm to European buyers of Boeing aircraft. Marilyn is a wife and mother, and qualified as a nurse practitioner. The chunky guy behind the counter who looks like someone Central Casting sent over for a role on The Sopranos is Armandino's son-in-law, Brian D'Amato, another ex-engineer; the tall, handsome lad just leaving the shop is the Batalis' son Dana, something big in the computer-animation firm Pixar. And then, of course, there's son Mario, who's just a chef, though he's also a TV celebrity, owner of three of the most successful restaurants in New York, and married to Susi Kahn, one of the heirs to the Coach leather fortune. Mario and his family don't make it back to Seattle often, but when they do, he heads straight for the kitchen; he'll whip up the family's Christmas Eve cioppino this year. The more you think about the Batalis, the more amazing they seem. Every one of them is a success in mainstream American terms (daughter Gina worked her way up as a General Electric executive before taking time off to mother two daughters), but somehow they've avoided the acid erosion of family that worldly success often brings. And food, that hackneyed adhesive of the clich頉talian-American family, plays an unmistakable role. The Batali kids spent their early years in Federal Way: a community not notable on the whole for "community." One day in 1976, Armandino came home and said that he'd been offered a two-year posting in Spain. A lot of Boeing families would have thought long and hard before pulling up roots so radically. "It took us about 15 minutes," says Marilyn. The Spanish posting was extended and extended again. Which meant that during the years when most American kids are honing their social skills and hanging out at the mall, Mario, Gina, and Dana were attending academically demanding schools (there weren't any other kind at the time) and traveling with their parents all over Europe, dropping in routinely on Michelin restaurants and hotels. ("We always looked for the places with lots of forks, not stars," Armandino recalls. "They offered a hell of a lot better deals, and that matters when there are five of you.") The Batali kids had always been expected to help out around the family kitchen. In Spain they encountered a society where serious dining is taken for granted and alcohol is part of the meal, not something to bang your head with. Growing up in a foreign capital just emerging from decades of Franco's bleak dictatorship, and with few other Americans in the 魩gr頣ommunity, the Batali children had to depend on family for social support far more than their contemporaries back home. And food was the central fact of family life. Fewer than six months after returning to the U.S. to attend college, Mario was working in a kitchen. He's been in a kitchen ever since, quickly moving into responsible jobs at a number of America's more chi-chi restaurants. He wasn't satisfied. Through his dad, he found a place to apprentice in a tiny mountain village in Italy. The apprenticeship spun itself out to three years. When he returned to the U.S., he brought back not just experience and an approach to hearty, peasant-style cooking but a passionate belief that the pleasures of the table are as important to the good life as health, wealth, and shelter. (The end paper of his Babbo Cookbook says it best: "Al tavola non s'invecchia mai"; the hours we spend dining don't count against our lives.) While Mario was working his way up the New York restaurant ladder, Armandino and Marilyn had to decide what to do with his impending retirement. What could be more natural than to go back to Europe and learn the painstaking, time-consuming craft of making traditional Italian sausages and cured meats? In the four years since it opened, Salumi has become a destination for international travelers as well as locals who know a good, cheap, friendly place when they see one. Salumi is a business—though Armandino gives away his food with such a free hand to friends that you can't help wondering about the bottom line. But it doesn't seem like a business. It seems like—I blush to say it—family. "I remember going to visit my grandparents when I was a kid in Connecticut," Brian said the other day. "That's what this place is like." And no theme-oriented, cost-accounted, franchised establishment will ever be able to match that. Salumi is located at 309 3rd Ave., just off Jackson St. It is open from 11a.m. to 4p.m. Tues-Fri. only. The phone number is 206-621-8772. NB: Salumi does not accept reservations, and will be closed for remodeling through January 15. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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