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Saturday, January 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle restaurant legend Victor Rosellini dies at 87

Seattle Times staff reporter

Victor Rosellini, who worked his way up from busboy and waiter to become one of the city's most respected restaurateurs, died Thursday night at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle from complications he suffered after a fall last week. He was 87.

Born in Tacoma in 1915 to Italian immigrant parents, Mr. Rosellini was best known for his uncanny ability to remember names and for the impeccable service at his many Seattle restaurants, among them the 610, Rosellini's Other Place and his crown jewel, the 410.

Friends, family and a local restaurant expert agree Seattle came of age as a city alongside Mr. Rosellini's establishments.

He employed Mick McHugh and Tim Firnstahl, who would eventually start well-known restaurants of their own. (McHugh owns F.X. McRory's Steak, Chop & Oyster House; Firnstahl owns Von's Grand City Cafe.) He worked alongside the owners of hotels and the scattered few gourmet restaurants in Seattle — Canlis, El Gaucho, the Golden Lion at the Olympic Hotel — to push for, and establish, new standards of service.

At the 410, Mr. Rosellini's waiters poured champagne and dressed in tuxedos. His chefs prepared gourmet, Continental-style steak and roast beef. He attached a "Boulevard Room," where politicians, including President Kennedy, mingled with other high-end guests, listening to live music and enjoying after-dinner drinks.

"Not many people in Seattle are known by their first name, but there's only one Victor," said McHugh. "Victor brought fine dining to Seattle."

John Hinterberger, a retired restaurant critic for The Seattle Times, said: "When I was in grad school, (the 410) was the place I saved up my money and went to once a year."

Mr. Rosellini started in the business during the Great Depression, working as a busboy at the Tunnel, his mother's restaurant on Market Street in San Francisco. She came from a family known for its cooking.

To this day, former Gov. Albert Rosellini, Victor's first cousin, remembers her meat and tomato sauce.

"It's the best pasta sauce I've ever known," he said. "Ground beef, beef roast, lots of vegetables, tomatoes, tomato paste, chicken livers, sausages, all ground down. And let it cook and simmer all day.

"That's where Victor started learning the trade."

After touring several other restaurants in San Francisco, Mr. Rosellini returned to Seattle in 1950 to start his first restaurant, the 610. Albert Rosellini said his cousin felt there was an opportunity, a need, for an upscale Italian-American restaurant in the city.

McHugh said Mr. Rosellini's peers included Vito and Jimmy Santoro, who always said hospitality was king; Ivar Haglund, who was the king of promotion; and Gil Centioli, who introduced Seattle to the 19-cent hamburger.

"They paved the way. I felt pretty lucky to be one of Victor's protégés," McHugh said. "He introduced me to New York City, he took me to Italy, to Rome, Florence, and taught me that people are the most important thing when you run these restaurants — the ones that work for you and the ones that come in the front door."

Mr. Rosellini also took advantage of the so-called Class H liquor laws of the time that allowed restaurants to serve hard liquor and changed the way they did business.

"Up until that time, people had to go to a private club to get a drink," said Jack Gordon, Mr. Rosellini's friend and the former CEO of the Restaurant Association of the State of Washington. "The new laws set the restaurant business on fire. It became a new era, you might say, and Victor was leading the parade."

In 1956, he opened the 410, named after its street address on University Street. In 1974, he opened the Other Place. A year later, he moved the 410 to Wall Street in Seattle.

In 1990, he joined McHugh to open Rosellini and McHugh's 910 Restaurant, on Second Avenue, also named for its address. At the time of his death, he operated Rosellini Gourmet Kitchen Catering.

Mr. Rosellini, who lived in Seattle, showed up at his restaurants before they opened and stayed until they closed. He greeted his regulars by first name. Gordon remembers how keenly interested Mr. Rosellini was in the welfare of his employees.

"When somebody would get laid off, or didn't get the promotion, he would take time to take them out to lunch," Gordon said. "He was thoughtful, that was the kind of personality Victor was."

He was also past president of the National Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Association of the State of Washington. He is credited with coining the national association's former slogan, "We're glad you're here!"

Mr. Rosellini is survived by his wife, Marcia; son, Robert; and sister Marie Rosellini.

A funeral and Mass are scheduled for Wednesday at 2 p.m. at St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Ave., in Seattle. A burial will follow at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in North Seattle, 5041 35th Ave. N.E.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.

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