Today, ingredients such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and extra-virgin olive oil are staples in American foodie kitchens. But several decades ago, they were still relatively rare in the United States. Products like these—artisan, high-quality, and often imported—became popular in American culture thanks, in part, to the California Food Revolution. And the California Food Revolution succeeded thanks, in part, to a couple Italian guys who owned a supermarket in Sacramento: the Corti brothers. Seventy years later, visitors can still visit the last remaining Corti grocery.
The Corti story started with Frank and Gino Corti, brothers from Genoa who founded an Italian market in Sacramento in 1947, when decent-quality olive oil was unheard-of in most American kitchens. The lone grocery soon grew into a local chain. Frank’s son, Darrell, truly made the stores into the stuff of foodie legend. A young, food-loving romantic (literally—he had gone to graduate school to study Romance languages), the younger Corti started working in the family business as a wine buyer in 1964. He followed his fancy across Europe and then across the world, tracking down rare tipples and other artisan products to sell at the store: sherry older than the Titanic; balsamic vinegar so syrupy, it resembled tangy maple; and pricey, fine canned tuna, to name a few.
In line with his literary inclinations, Corti accompanied this culinary adventuring with a newsletter on all things gourmet. It grew by word of mouth into a favorite among California’s budding restaurant scene. At the time, U.S. fine dining was a stuffy affair, filled with white tablecloths, strict manners, and an obsequious devotion to all things French. But in California, a group of young chefs and gastronomes, many of them women, turned toward their own land. They were interested in the potential of California’s local bounty, and experimented with concepts such as open kitchens to make fine dining more accessible to guests. Corti’s newsletter gained something of a cult following among adherents of this new way of cooking—which became known as the California Food Revolution—and he helped source products for some of their innovative new restaurants.
Today, the Corti empire has been reduced to one store. Even that location’s fate isn’t certain—a few years ago, a rumor the store might be bought out prompted a citywide outcry—but its beloved status in the community is unrivaled. Today, Darrell Corti’s grocery store boasts a strange and poetic mixture of old and new, of high-quality gourmet ingredients and ordinary supermarket goods. But more than 70 years after the store’s founding, there’s one thing that’s remained irrefutably true about Corti products: They’re still delicious.