Dining at Commellini’s during its earliest days was little more than an invitation to eat at Elide Commellini’s kitchen table.
The Italian immigrant, known by her nickname Leda, hosted dinner parties for friends to fight loneliness at the house she purchased with her half-brother Albert Commellini along Spring Creek and what is now Dartford Drive.
Those parties were the genesis of Commellini’s Restaurant, which opened its doors in 1941.
In Leda’s capable hands and with the help of her brother and a niece, the restaurant rose to the height of popularity over the next three decades. But its future was uncertain after she suffered a stroke in 1977.
Facing doubt about Leda’s health, the Commellini family leased the restaurant to others – and their influence and pride in their namesake faded until the restaurant closed in May 2009.
Now, a new generation hopes to return the Commellini estate to its former glory, complete with Leda Commellini’s recipes.
Lauri Seghetti and her daughter Desiree Seghetti will reopen Commellini Estate this weekend for a members-only reception. They’ve created what they call a “private restaurant” with limited dining opportunities for members and a venue for events.
A membership to Commellini Estate is free; those interested in dining must sign up online or by calling the restaurant. Members receive a monthly newsletter with details about upcoming dinners, the menu and prices. Then, they must call ahead with reservations for events they’d like to attend.
Lauri Seghetti says although the membership may seem a bit onerous, the intent is to create an intimate dining experience, get to know their customers and return the restaurant to its roots.
In the early days, those who wanted to eat at Commellini’s would call Leda for a reservation and she would take their order. She offered steak, fried chicken and chicken cacciatore entrees and each meal was served with salad and family-style spaghetti with tomato sauce and chicken ravioli.
Those who arrived at the isolated restaurant north of Spokane without calling were turned away hungry; it didn’t matter if they were friends or even one of the most beloved New York Yankees baseball players of all time.
Leda famously turned away Joe DiMaggio when the slugger showed up unannounced (even in the face of pleas from those who begged her to make an exception). Family members say DiMaggio stayed in Spokane an extra day to dine at Commellini’s the next night.
Lauri Seghetti says she and her husband have been dreaming about returning the restaurant to the family since before she and Robert were married 27 years ago.
“Even when we were dating we would talk about plans,” she says.
Robert Seghetti’s mother, Gina, is Leda and Albert Commellini’s niece. She came to Spokane in 1950 at their invitation for what was supposed to be a six-month visit. She began by helping in the restaurant and later learned English at Holy Names Academy.
Gina went back home four years later to visit family and her longtime boyfriend Mauro Seghetti. Shortly after her return to Spokane, he moved to be with her. They were married in 1956.
The Seghettis have partnered with Juli Norris of Simply Gourmet to cater the food at Commellini’s. Norris and her crew were recently honored for outstanding hors d’oeuvres, a trio of rustic Italian crostini, at the Epicurean Delight fundraiser for the Inland Northwest Blood Center.
Lauri Seghetti is an interior designer. Her daughter Desiree has a business administration degree from the University of Washington, where restoring the family restaurant was central to her studies. She wrote business plans for Commellini’s as a part of many classes.
She also studied in Italy and visited extended family still living in Staffoli, north of Pisa.
The restaurant will look different to those who have dined there. The interior walls have been removed, to create one large room with a small bar area.
The original terrazzo floors were restored and new black terrazzo was laid where the walls once stood (coincidentally, by a relative of the original installer). The striking floor includes six colors of terrazzo and beautiful detailing at its center.
The original chandeliers were preserved and the Seghettis installed pillars and sconces in the bar area that were found in storage. Desiree Seghetti says they found the fixtures and many other treasures as they dug through old family records in storage.
Albert Commellini came to the United States at age 13 in 1904 and was an entrepreneur. He first landed in Chicago and worked for the railroad, following the jobs west until he settled in Spokane.
In storage on the 140-acre family property, the Seghettis found letterheads from the Ambassador’s Club, a swanky nightclub; hotels; his many apartment buildings; a lithography company; and an Italian importing business.
Commellini also started a soup kitchen in the lobby of one of his downtown hotels during the Great Depression to help those who were suffering.
Desiree says it was like someone locked the door one day and walked away from many of the storage rooms; they found a 1938 National Geographic and a calendar from 1940 among the records.
“It was like stepping back in time,” she says.
Albert and Leda also ran a chicken ranch at one time, in buildings still standing across the creek behind the restaurant (which also served as their home). In addition to serving them at the restaurant, employees slaughtered up to 1,000 chickens a day and supplied other stores and restaurants including the Davenport Hotel.
Albert ran for county commissioner, served as a deputy sheriff and was known for his Prohibition-era sales of the ingredients for bootlegged moonshine – a role immortalized by author Timothy Egan in his book “Breaking Blue.”
Leda arrived in Spokane in 1923, sent by her father who thought is was “about time somebody checked on Albert,” according to the family. Her visit also turned into a relocation and she purchased the family land with her brother in 1938.
The Seghettis say they hope to someday turn Commellini’s back into a full-time restaurant, but they’re starting small.
Commellini Estate also offers a small, creekside space for outdoor weddings and the Seghettis are working with the county for approval to host weddings and parties at a larger site near a pond on the property, which could accommodate up to 300 guests.
The first event this weekend will feature Leda Commellini’s recipes for steak, chicken cacciatore and her spaghetti sauce. The family-style meal is $39.99 and reservations are required. There’s also a full bar where drinks can be purchased separately.
The Seghettis are planning a grand opening celebration on Jan. 14 and 15. The event will feature wine-paired hors d’oeuvres and double as a fundraiser for the ISAAC Foundation, which offers therapy grants for children with autism. Tickets are $75.
There is more information available on the Commellini Estate website, www.commelliniestate.com, or by calling Lauri or Desiree Seghetti at (509) 466-0667.
Hong Kong Buffet opens
Just a month after Michael Lin and Vicky Zheng were faced with the possibility of Zheng’s deportation to China, they have opened a new restaurant in the Spokane Valley Mall.
Hong Kong Buffet opened in mid-November near Regal Cinemas at the southwest end of the mall. Zheng and her husband Lin previously worked at the Hong Kong Express on North Division.
The couple had restaurant plans in the works before Zheng received an order in October to appear before immigration officials for possible deportation to her native People’s Republic of China. A judge granted her a last-minute stay which allows her to remain in the U.S. for another year while she makes another appeal for asylum.
The restaurant’s buffet includes sushi, a soup bar, salad bar and many traditional Chinese favorites, including seafood dishes.
The lunch buffet is $7.19 per person and is served Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The dinner buffet begins at 3:45 and ends at 9:30 p.m., with a cost of $10.99 per person. The buffet is also served 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays and holidays for $11.99.
Children can eat from the buffet at lunch for $.50 per year up to 10 years of age and the dinner and holiday buffet for $.60 per year. Kids younger than 2 eat free.
The varied menu also offers an array of Hunan, Cantonese, Szechwan, Japanese and American dishes to eat at the restaurant or take out. Guests can also carry out food from the buffet.
Hong Kong Buffet is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday. The Spokane Valley Mall is at 14700 E. Indiana Ave. Reach the restaurant at (509) 928-9799.
• Sushi Maru, a kaiten-style sushi restaurant, is open in the former Sawtooth Grill location at River Park Square. Diners can choose dishes from a conveyor that passes each table. Most items range in price from $1.50 to $4.50 per plate.
The restaurant is owned by Paul Choi of Bellevue, who also has several other kaiten restaurants on Washington’s West Side.
Hours are 11 a.m. to close Monday through Saturday, noon to close on Sunday. River Park Square is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
• The West Wing of The White House Grill is now cranking out the signature Mediterranean fare on Spokane’s South Hill.
Owner Raci Erdem opened the third branch of his popular eatery, which includes The White House Grill and The Oval Office in Post Falls.
The Spokane restaurant, 4334 S. Regal St., is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reach the restaurant at (509) 443-1660.
MacKenzie River Pizza Co. is coming to Spokane in 2011.
The Montana restaurant company behind the soon-to-open Ciao Mambo restaurant in downtown Spokane also will open a Mackenzie River Pizza Co. next year, the company announced recently.
The restaurant will open at North Nevada Street and East Jay Avenue, near WinCo Foods.
This will be the first MacKenzie River Pizza Co. in Washington. There is a MacKenzie River Pizza in Coeur d’Alene and a dozen locations in Montana, where the first restaurant opened in 1993.