By Kirsten Telander
Cugini Italian Import Foods celebrates its 10th year in business in April, and things have never looked more favoloso for this unpretentious little gem. Cugini was voted Best Gourmet Grocery in the Walla Walla Valley for the second year in a row. Owner/chef Chantelle Martuscelli is the only one east of the Cascades curing her own meats, and there’s a waiting list for restaurants that want to carry them. Chantelle has plans for expansion and is ready to launch a new logo to celebrate Cugini’s success. Congratulazioni!
Cugini has the kind of story that births great fiction. Cugini’s founder, Don Maiuri, learned to cure salami and make Italian sausage from his father, Emilio, who learned from his father. It was Don’s Grandpa that sent for Dominick Martuscelli in Italy in 1921 to come work the Maiuri family farm. Dominick saved his money, bought and farmed his own land, and made wine for the Italian neighborhood (customers still tell stories of about him and his wine cellar). The family resides at the same land he farmed around the corner from the shop. Dominick’s great granddaughter, Chantelle, ended up working for Don when he opened Cugini, learning the business from him, which she now owns. No, I am not making this up.
Situated in Walla Walla’s own little Italy, the shop is like a real-life movie set, with regulars who come in and ask, “Whatcha gonna make me today?” Chantelle’s Grandpa (also named Dominick) comes in for coffee and samples what she’s cooking, often there with Don. Chantelle continues to play with old-world recipes passed down through generations including those from her late Aunt Marguerite (the inspiration behind Chantelle’s Walla Walla Valley Coffee Table Cookbook in the works), Aunt Marie, Aunt Rosie, and Grandma Kathy.
Chantelle has a cult-like following for her meatballs, so my husband and I had to come on a Wednesday – spaghetti and meatballs day. He promptly confirmed that yes, they are much better than the ones I make at home. I agreed.
I reveled in the garlic chicken Panini – roasted chicken, provolone, a sublime sundried tomato pesto, and garlic. We started with a generous salad of fresh spring greens, aged balsamic, sundried tomatoes, and black olives.
Being that Cugini ain’t just a spaghetti and meatball kinda joint, I went back on Thursday for the pasta special, which Chantelle always changes up. Former specials posted on Facebook, which garnered the restaurant over 2,000 “likes” in a couple months, include baked trenne in a gorgonzola dolce sauce, gnocchi and guanciale with fennel sauce, butternut and goat cheese ravioli with fresh sage.
On this Thursday, it was a Blue Valley Meats lamb ravioli with sautéed carrots in a parmesan cream sauce. Chantelle made a vegetable stock in the morning (over the years I’ve gained great appreciation for a good stock), cooked the lamb in the stock, and then used the lamb stock in the sauce. I decided to let the gentleman behind me provide these words, spoken to his wife on his cell phone:
“It’s like the most amazing thing I’ve had in my life. Ridiculous. I’m still in shock.” No, I am not making this up, and Chantelle did not bring him in as a prop. Josh, as he later introduced himself to me as, placed an order to pick up later in the day for his wife to try, and shook his head all the way to his car as if still dumbfounded by his culinary discovery.
The next day, I had every intention of going straight to Home Depot, but found my car heading down what has now become the familiar road to Cugini. It was a Friday, my work for the week was done, and I was in luck: the special of the day was a flatbread with a house-made Alfredo sauce, fresh mozzarella, zucchini slices, sundried tomatoes, and pesto. As with everything at Cugini, Chantelle made the flatbread before my eyes, and delivered its bubbly deliciousness right out of the oven to my table outside, where I basked in the early spring sun while sipping on a glass of Arcangelo Salice Salentino red wine from Southern Italy. Perfezione.