Greg Leytem has owned and operated Natalia & Cristoforo’s Authentic Italian Meats and Cheeses for over 16 years in Corvallis. A charming deli inconspicuously tucked away on Jackson Avenue across from the Greyhound station, meats and cheeses live here, the kinds you crave and can’t find anywhere else, and that’s just how this story begins.
Leytem moved to Corvallis from San Francisco and had a difficult time finding the deli meats he had become accustomed to, specifically Mortadella. He worked for a couple of corporate deli markets which refused to stock and sell Mortadella as it wasn’t a commonly sold meat in this area. Mortadella is a smooth-textured Italian pork sausage dotted with pig fat, and the good examples are worth finding.
So, when a friend from Leytem’s high school days found out about a newly opened deli on Jackson Avenue which housed two small refrigerators selling about 20 meats and cheeses, including Mortadella, Leytem quickly became a regular customer. One day, after coming in once or twice a week for a month, he saw the owner had put up a “for sale” sign. He bought the deli knowing he would incorporate sandwiches. Leytem confided, “Any deli worth its weight has to have a good sandwich.”
Named after his two youngest children, Natalie and Christopher, he originally wanted to keep it to his daughter’s name, but with an Italian twist, Natalia. Modeling a similar tactic that Dave of the Wendy’s restaurant chain had become known for, Leytem pitched the idea to his family. His son Christopher wasn’t keen on the idea, and thus gave birth to what we now know as Natalia & Cristoforo’s. In Italy, the male name always comes first, so having it the other way around is a major faux pas. Leytem said, “But we don’t care here.” No, we don’t.
While the location is a bit off the beaten path, those who know of the deli are loyal. Leytem said, “The location is not the best for me, but I’ve been here so long that I own it now.” However, there are students who are extremely loyal to the deli until graduation, some enjoying their last Corvallis meal at the deli with their family. “I love having the students come in as customers, but that last day is just, for both of us, it’s like a heartbreak.” Several customers who came in the day I visited were loyal customers, patiently waiting for their turn with Leytem. The deli attracts every kind of person, from high-ranking city officials and successful entrepreneurs to students and janitors; townies living here awhile know about this place.
Back to Leytem though—his dad was a meat cutter and pushed him towards the industry when he was young. Having unruly hair at that time, he cut his locks to meet the requirements of the food industry before his first interview. Borrowing a suit to impress, he went into the interview but was not offered a position. While his first interview didn’t go as planned, he got another opportunity a year later, this time not dressed to the nines and keeping with his preferred hair style. Passing four others dressed in suits, he laughed a little to himself remembering that was him just a year ago. The exact interviewer who had turned him down the previous year offered him a position after learning about the sacrifices Leytem made to change his hair situation. He started that following Monday in the meat department.
Leytem recounted his father knowing the names of every customer he served, and knew he wanted to run a business with the same customer relationships. He loves conversing with his customers and they enjoy it as well. I watched as several customers and Leytem humored each other with musings while he filled their orders. He was never in a rush, was helpful, attentive, and easily friendly with each person. He provided samples and, explaining verbally what was already written on the menu, he seemed proud and never impatient.
In the beginning, he developed four or five sandwiches for the shop, and while good, some customers craved to customize and design their own, Natalie and Christopher included. The named sandwiches on the menu pay homage to the customers who created them. Most of his customers do not deviate from their choice of sandwich. If he sees a regular customer prior to them walking through the door, he will try to have their choice of sandwich prepared and ready to take.
Leytem’s favorite sandwich is what he calls a grilled cheese with jalapenos, but it is not just cheese as it has two different meats, four to five different cheeses, and is topped with a heaping pile of jalapenos. Prior to the grilled cheese, Leytem favored the Gregorio which contains mozzarella, genoa salami, Mortadella (of course), capicolla (which is another pork cold cut), and a slew of veggies.
I tried the “Bober” the day I spoke with Leytem. It consists of Swiss and provolone cheeses, genoa salami, cotto salami, Mortadella, capicolla, and all of the veggies on muffuletta bread. The “Bober” creation came from a Corvallis High School student, who Leytem says was the size of a linebacker. Leytem said the then teen tried all of the sandwiches on the menu, and even though he liked them all, stated, “They weren’t substantial enough” and designed a sandwich which contained everything.
Leytem told stories of several past and present customers, and it’s evident that he loves what he does. He doesn’t make a living running the deli and really sees it as a hobby, a labor of love. He enjoys the non-job he has created. After the economy fell, he stopped taking a wage and only affords himself meals and gas. When he needs help around the deli, friends and family volunteer. Whenever he is away, customers inquire about his whereabouts and sometimes don’t come back until he has returned. It is, at the core, a family and community-oriented eatery—and from a gastronomical viewpoint, quite probably the best sandwich place in town.
Words by Kaitlin Gomez
Photography by Scott Roberts