Bar del Corso – the Ultimate Seattle Neighborhood Joint
It’s All Good in the Neighborhood
I have a thing for neighborhood joints. And I’m not talking about Applebees. I’m thinking of that little place a short walk down the street that has a special charm to it. You get to know the owners, chef and staff. You can have that extra glass of wine and take a leisurely stroll back home without care. You can go whenever you feel like it and, like that old song goes; sometimes we want to go where everybody knows your name…
I recently had this conversation with Josh Henderson from the Huxley/Wallace Collective. What’s not to like about good neighborhood restaurants? Your neighborhood local has enjoyed props for years and many of us look forward to being able to walk in, sit down and have a drink put in front of us without even having to order. So now it’s time to give that same level of respect to the neighborhood joint.
I love these places – especially when they are located in smaller neighborhoods in cities that traditionally have a core area where good restaurants are typically located. I’ve always thought of Seattle as a city that is really a collection of neighborhoods. I think of it more as a big town than a booming metropolis like New York, London or Tokyo. That said, people seem to go to the usual spots where there’s a lot of choice. And usually no parking. If you are planning on going out to dinner with a friend that lives in a place like Capitol Hill and you ask them if they want to go to a restaurant in Magnolia or West Seattle – they’ll ask you if they need to pack a lunch to get there.
When I think of the ‘core’ areas for restaurants in Seattle I think of Capitol Hill, Belltown, Downtown and Lower Queen Anne. Some neighborhoods like Wallingford, Fremont, (Wallingmont), Ballard and South Lake Union have great new places (and some older ones) and are starting to make their mark on the scene in force. I love that little block in Ballard that has The Fat Hen, Delancey, Essex and Honoré Artisan Bakery. I’ve been to Pair in the U District about two dozen times in the last 10 years. And I enjoy small, hidden places Cantinetta in Wallingford and Le Petit Cochon in Fremont. Thankfully for us diners/neighbors – the concept of the neighborhood restaurant is beginning to take hold.
A Diamond in the Rough
One such neighborhood joint that has recently become my muse is none other than Bar del Corso located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of south Seattle. I have to admit – I’ve lived here for almost 10 years and I don’t think I’ve ever been on Beacon Ave. until about a month ago. It’s not that I have anything against the area; I’ve just never found a need to go there. Until now. I’ve been there 4 times in the last 3 weeks and I think I’m hooked.
Bar del Corso is owned by Jerry Corso and his wife Gina who live in the neighborhood. The food is rustic Italian with the best damned pizza I’ve had in Seattle. About 3 months ago when I met with Jason Stratton he lauded this magical Neapolitan pie as the best in town so I had to try it. Here’s the news – he don’t lie. That pizza is like magical food crack that makes me eat it like I stole it. Each time I’ve been to Bar del Corso I’ve eaten two side dishes plus a whole pie. And no, I’m not just a gluttonous bastard who can’t control his culinary urges – it’s just that good. Last time I was there I tried the ‘Tonno del Chianti’ which is a braised pork dish that almost made me cry it was so good. I texted my wife mid-plate and told her I wanted to rub it all over my face and take a bath with the sauce.
When the Moon Hits Your Eye
After acutely stalking Jerry Corso and haunting Bar del Corso over a 3 week period, I made my move and asked him for a date to chat. I’d been into his place a few times with my son and fortunately for me he complied. I thank my boy for charming him into accepting my interview request…
Jerry and I met on a Monday when Bar del Corso is typically closed (yet he’s still working of course) and I also had the pleasure of meeting his wife Gina. We shared this conversation over a slightly odd Cucumber soda…
So why did you get involved in food?
I started working in restaurants when I was fifteen and a half in small town USA – Poulsbo, Washington. I worked for a Swiss French guy named Pierre. He inspired me to keep doing it. Well, that, coupled with that I didn’t really like school and I quickly realized it wasn’t for me.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
At The Olympic Inn washing dishes. I’m pretty sure I stayed there for about three years and ended up being the night cook/lead cook. Then I saw an ad for the Westin Hotel which was opening the Palm Court so I went to interview and got the job there. It was one of the few fine dining restaurants in Seattle in the early 80’s.
Working at a hotel was a pretty good experience – almost like an apprenticeship. I had 20 different bosses – a butcher, the bakery, the main kitchen. But getting back into a small kitchen and working in family run places is where the soul of cooking is for me.
So how did you end up in Italy?
Sometime after leaving the hotel I worked on a cruise line. Then I backpacked in Europe and found a job in Rome. I’d studied Italian for about a year but really didn’t learn to speak it properly until I got there. I worked in 3 or 4 different places at that time which then led to many other trips for 3-6 months at a time. Then I went up to work in the Langhe at La Contea, Osteria dell Arco in Alba and then in Lazio with Salvatore Tassa – all the while learning the cuisine of the regions around me.
So what is your favorite Italian regional cuisine?
My heart lies in Lazio. At the same time, like any large city, if you don’t know where you are going you can eat terribly. But I love the Roman cuisine. Working in Fiumicino near the Tyrrhanean Sea was wonderful and the food from there is among my favorite.
It’s amazing that regionally you can be in once place and have the same set of dishes in every restaurant – then you go to another region 25 miles away and it’s completely different.
With all that great food, and the life in Italy – why did you come back?
Well, I came back to Obelisk in DC where I had worked before. Peter Pastan, who owned it, had asked me to go back to relieve him of his duties. He committed to help me figure out how to run my own place and I had developed a good relationship with him so I wanted to help him out.
Tell me about why you decided to start Bar del Corso in Beacon Hill and not somewhere like Capitol Hill
Number one – we live here. It’s our neighborhood. I wanted to create a lifestyle and didn’t want to have to commute to work. I also saw that this area was under served. I really like the idea of being in a neighborhood. Getting to know the community and developing relationships is important to me.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
The people that we work with. All the like-minded people in the industry. Obviously, one of the most rewarding things is to see people appreciate what it is that you’re doing and that, in the end, might be the best thing. To have people understand and appreciate it. I also like that you can make your own choices. Make you own rules…
What do you like least about it?
Having things break really sucks. Also, I don’t read Yelp. The thing I like least is probably not being able to sit at the counter and enjoy what our favorite customers are enjoying. We also have to maintain a different night owl lifestyle. I enjoy it to a degree but the long hours can get to you.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
In a nutshell – it’s got to be to put out the best food that we can. That coupled with ensuring that everyone that works here can make a good living. Being able to take care of everybody is a goal of ours.
What is your philosophy about food and cooking?
Probably trying to find the best ingredients possible to use – locally when possible. To a degree that’s how all the Italian cooks do it. It’s a continuation of Italian cuisine and use those techniques and ideas.
Why focus on rustic Italian cuisine? What does it mean to you?
The first time I took the trip to Italy I called it ‘retracing my ancestor’s footsteps’. My Great Grandparents came from Italy. I’d worked with a bunch of French chefs in the States and I wanted to see and learn about making Italian food. That’s where my passion lies.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
If it was my son or daughter I’d say ‘don’t do it’. Otherwise, practice, read and travel. That’s where I’ve learned the most. You just have to do it. As the AC/DC song goes – It’s a long way to the top if ya wanna rock n roll.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
That’s a hard question to answer because I’ve always been from the school of hard knocks where I had to make things happen on my own. I always thought I wanted to go to culinary school; and I did take classes here and there. But I learned the most from doing and working. I can’t say I would do much different. There may be a few doors I wouldn’t have knocked on if I knew what was going to happen but all in all I’m pretty happy with how things worked out.
What is your inspiration?
The fire under my ass to tell me to do better! All the Osteria in Italy and the Italian grandmothers – they are my inspiration. And farmhouse cooking. When I go to Italy I’m always looking to find an Osteria – and, in particular, some of the Slow Food Osterias are phenomenal.
What is your favorite ingredient?
That is impossible! Can we break it down into seasons? Fava beans and artichokes in the spring. Squash blossoms and heirloom tomatoes in summer. Chanterelles, arugula and apples in the fall. The winter would definitely be Meyer lemons, blood oranges, chestnuts and olive oil. I couldn’t leave off anchovies and salt cod and really any type of pork products. So, lots of favorites!
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
I might have to refer to Gina on this. I would hope that the neighborhood restaurant is the case. It’s amazing how dense Capitol Hill is – and to a degree, the more the merrier up there. People moving to the neighborhoods and eating there – that would be a great trend to visualize.
What trends/fads are played out?
I don’t have an answer – stuffed crust pizza! Bacon flavored vodka [Gina adds from the peanut gallery]
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
Luckily we have some really good farmers in the area. Without them it would be horrible. We endure the winter months of cabbage, beets and potatoes. A lot of them are really good if you tell them how you want things grown – how to pick squash blossoms when they are just the right size. I think we get a good amount of stuff locally. One thing I’ve notices is that a lot of farmers tend to overgrow beans, peas and other vegetables so they are too starchy and not good to cook with. We work with Frank’s Produce year round. We also just started using Farmer Georgie and we work with Alvarez Farms and Tonnemaker Farm. For meat, we use Cascioppo Bros. meats and their pork is from Carlton Farms in Oregon. With that, we make our own sausage in house as well as other dishes.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Whatever they want – really. We just went to a friend’s house for dinner. I don’t know why people say they are nervous to cook for a chef – I wouldn’t care what it is as long as it’s good.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
There are so many good chefs in this town and to name one wouldn’t be right. Jim Drohman from Le Pichet is one of the smartest. He helped me with my business plan for this place. Building a business plan helps to start breaking down everything from a cost perspective and gets you to the point of opening up. That said, I haven’t looked at it since we opened.
What is your last meal?
It would probably be somewhere on the Tyrrhanean sea. I’d start with a big plate of fritti misti. Then we might have our spaghetti con vongole or with lobster and a whole roasted turbot. Then we’re going to drink the last few remaining bottles of the ‘68 Taurasi from Campagna and fall asleep.
[Gina adds] I would have eggs benedict for breakfast. And the most giant cinnamon rolls since I don’t care about how fat I get!
Sounds like a lovely way to go out!
I’ve Got a Fever, And the Only Cure is…
Bar del Corso.
The market for good, affordable food that you can walk to in your neighborhood is there. What is lacking is commercial restaurant space but that can be remedied. People must be willing to invest in retrofitting buildings with the required equipment and costs for things like ventilation hoods and duct work are significant. But when you see people cooking out of buildings that were once homes such as Pair or Maria Hines’ Tilth in Wallingford you know that it’s possible. Imagine the satisfaction of being able to walk down your block to a coffee shop, then on to a small grocery, even a butcher or specialty food shop, and a restaurant or two. It might sound a bit too idyllic or conjure up images of provincial living in the Mediterranean countryside for you as it does for me. But one can dream…
If you enjoyed this interview with Jerry Corso from Bar del Corso then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! Next up, Eric Donnelly of Rock Creek and Dustin Ronspies from Art of the Table coming soon to The Hungry Dog Blog!
Farrotto with Morels
Serves 4-6 as a first course Ingredients For the Farrotto For the Soffritto (this can be made ahead and saved to use for other recipes such as pasta sauce) Instructions: Soffrito Farroto
A Recipe from Jerry Corso of Bar del Corso
Farrotto with Morels Serves 4-6 as a first course
For the Farrotto
For the Soffritto
(this can be made ahead and saved to use for other recipes such as pasta sauce)