THERE IS NOTHING quite like the thrill attending the opening of a new restaurant in a proudly improving community. "Saw the sign go up today," a neighbor of mine told me last summer while walking her dogs down my street, and she didn't have to tell me what sign she was talking about. Salumeria had been the talk of Columbia City since long before the sign went up; rumors had been circulating that the women who opened La Medusa on the corner of Rainier and Edmunds a couple of years before were looking for a nearby space in which to launch a gourmet Mediterranean deli. Salumeria on Hudson
4918 Rainier Ave S, 760-7741
MC, V; beer and wine Now, in Greenwood or Madison Park or other neighborhoods north of the 'hood, a new Mediterranean deli amidst the mix of other dining options would be of passing interest. In Columbia City it quickly became the hope of the neighborhood. Recent years had brought in a couple of morning gathering places. Both Lottie Mott's Coffeehouse on Rainier and Ferdinand (the homegrown neighborhood option), and Starbucks on Rainier and Edmunds (its polished uptown cousin) became loci of the community within about a week of their openings. But the neighborhood still had no casual afternoon or evening hangout. What was needed was a place folks could shlep into for a nosh, a casual Friday evening meal with neighbors and the kids, a takeout dinner by the bus stop, an affordable vacation from the stove. Enter Salumeria, in September of this year. The enterprise of Lisa Becklund and Sherri Sorino, whose La Medusa serves higher price-pointed pastas and pizzas to a sit-down crowd, and John Stewart, former sous chef of Cafe Lago, Salumeria's whole point was casual noshing and affordable takeout. Well, not its whole point: Blue-ribbon cured meats, from a number of distinguished purveyors, is Salumeria's main endeavor, as well as the meaning of its name (which is pronounced, by the way, "sal-u-mer-EE-a"—you don't want to be getting that wrong in my proud neighborhood). You walk in and pink hunks of salami and prosciutto and coppa are lined up in a big glass case, alongside bowls of glistening olives and brilliant peppers lolling around in oil and garlic, and great platters of pasta salads and little golf balls of mozzarella swimming in olive oil with bright tomatoes and flecks of basil. It's a lush spread, all showcased within a stylish, large, rather purposefully rustic space with lofty ceilings and gossamer curtains and shelves of wine and gourmet foodstuffs that impart an historic, European flavor. (Just like in Europe, you can buy a bottle of great wine off these shelves minus the exorbitant restaurant markup and enjoy it with your meal—at no corkage fee.) Along the high windows in half of the store sit a handful of scattered tables; the idea is to order up at the deli case, pay at the end of the line, then take your food either to one of those tables or to one of the two or three up in the retail loft. Problem is, none of this is immediately apparent to the first-time visitor. "They need a sign that says 'Order here!'" my companion rightly remarked on our first visit. One figures it out, but not because the guy behind the counter is making it easy for you. On all of my visits he was so busy taking orders and making salads and heating slices and calling out names that he couldn't be bothered to welcome guests or ask their pleasure. Suggestion to management: Lighten this fella's load. DON'T GET ME WRONG, however: Service couldn't be sweeter-spirited. The guy tossing pizzas—that's Stewart—is good for a word or two about the menu, and the good-time gal who takes your money is a real card. They're appropriately indulgent about annoying children and "Where's the water?"-type questions—it's over toward the door—and they all seem to care genuinely about food. In many of Salumeria's dishes, that concern shows. An antipasto platter featured a smattering of the starring cold cuts, transparently sliced, alongside olives and richly pungent marinated beets and the aforementioned mozzarella balls, which were rather disappointingly thin of flavor. One evening's salad special, cold rigatoni pasta ($3) with tomatoes, onions, herbs, peppers, goat cheese, and tangy suggestions of mint, was a simple marvel, everlastingly creamy. Another salad, the Caesar ($3.75, $6.25) was fine, though quite sharply seasoned with garlic and anchovies and lemon. Still another salad had a problem. The Chop salad ($3.50, $5.95) is supposed to be a big diversity party of garbanzo beans, salami, provolone cheese, red onions, and humble iceberg lettuce chunks, all tossed together in an Italian vinaigrette. Lots-of-chop to not-so-much-salad is the proper ratio—but Salumeria gets it backwards, so it looks like a bunch of iceberg lettuce with some confetti tossed in. I ordered it twice to make sure this wasn't an anomaly; alas, it looks to be the recipe. Skip it. Progress directly to the sandwiches, of which there are—or were—four or five each of cold and hot. ("We're grilling 'em all now," says Becklund. "Everyone wanted them hot.") The Manzo ($4.95) off the cold list features a tidy pile of thin-sliced roast beef and parmesan with arugula between foccacia bread. This was delicious. Better was the monster meatball sandwich ($5.50), in which fat hand-rolled meatballs were dumped into a big hollowed-out piece of baguette and smothered in a gutsy marinara. Mama mia! This one has the whole neighborhood talking. CASSEROLE DINNERS, of which there are three or so a night, are also earning high marks from the people. "Oh, get the polenta," a neighbor sighed on her way out the door, "It's sensational!" I frankly found it ($4.95) less than; the mushrooms and spinach and fontina cheese couldn't do enough to rescue the corn meal base from its essential blandness. But the two others that evening were bolder by far and quite delicious. The eggplant parmesan ($5.50) sang in a smoky, sultry minor key and was quite compelling on the palate. The lasagne ($5.50) was a creamy masterpiece with a peppery kick. I'd come back for both. The fastest thing to grab at Salumeria is a slice of pizza, however, so I'll doubtless be back for a couple dozen of these in the meantime. Granted, the first pepperoni pizza we ordered here for takeout was burned black on the bottom (a gaffe I can never understand a kitchen allowing). Since then we've had nothing but luck, whether the golden crusts were dripping with red onions, sweet caramelized onions, garlic, and delectable blistered fontina ($2.45), or red pepper slices and arugula ($2.50). You can finish with a scoop of Procopio's stunning gelato ($1.25) (which they can give you the Sicilian way, in a brioche), or a slice of a fruit tart ($3), or one of Stewart's homemade biscotti ($.50) and an espresso—all of which are quite toothsome and have Columbia Citizens hoofing down to obtain at all times of afternoon and evening (Salumeria closes at 8pm). Truth be told, given the range of options, the neighborhood probably would have anointed Salumeria its unofficial salon no matter what the food tasted like. That it's mostly quite good is a happy extra. Now, if we could just get them to deliver pizza, the neighborhood would be perfect.