Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Michelle Quisenberry and chef Don Curtiss opened Volterra in Ballard in April 2005. The couple drew inspiration from a small Tuscan town of the same name where they held their wedding.
Eater caught up to these "Lifers" to reminisce on 10 years in the quickly-changing Ballard neighborhood. Diners can reminisce, too, with a four-course "Favorites Tasting Menu" of Volterra throwbacks that launches April 24 and will be available for the rest of the year.
Tell me about Volterra's start.
Michelle: Don and I were introduced, gosh, 14 years ago, by our mutual friend Chef Kathy Casey and so that kind of all started this whole thing. I have a finance background and was involved in starting up a lot of tech companies and I had transitioned to consulting and took a project in Europe for a year. Don at that time was the chef/partner at Il Fornaio, so he ended up taking a sabbatical and went to Europe with me. We knew that once we got married that next year we would be opening our own restaurant. We were married there in the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra, and so that became the namesake of the restaurant.
How did you come across the town originally?
Michelle: Volterra is a small hilltop Tuscan town where Italians live and work and tourists usually come in for the day and then leave. A gal that I had been introduced to from Washington DC married an Italian and she and her husband plan weddings and do tourism and they live in Volterra. So that’s how we kind of became aware of this town.
On our first trip to Italy we went to visit and it’s just a magical spot. It’s a teeny town so we’ve kind of become friends with lots of the business owners. We became dear friends with a family who owns the best restaurant in Volterra and so we built this relationship with this family who cooked the wedding dinner for us and became involved in our whole celebration. Over the last 10 years, we’ve sent at least 50 customers, guests and friends, back and forth to each other's restaurants.
We have countless customers that ask for travel advice when they go to Tuscany and they want to swing by Volterra and check it out. I kind of give them a big itinerary and at the top of the list is always going to our friend’s restaurant. They’ll come back with gifts from our friends and pictures. Our friends will do the same thing for us.
Ballard is a rapidly changing neighborhood. What was it like 10 years ago?
Michelle: We were really one of the anchor restaurants on Ballard Avenue, there was us and some of the old favorites like Bad Albert and things like that but we were really the first kind of finer dining restaurant to make its way to Ballard. Over the past 10 years it’s been amazing to see the growth and now there’s, I can’t even remember, I think there’s a hundred restaurants in that area. So, it’s becoming extremely popular and to watch the neighborhood transform has been really exciting.
Has that growth impacted what you do at Volterra?
Don: Well, I think that our basic concept at Volterra is that we provide the best quality ingredients we can find and try to give the best quality service in a great atmosphere and I think that no matter where you are that’s going to work. And I think that’s what everybody strives for in the restaurant business, try to keep it exciting. We have our signature dishes, like the wild boar and the crispy chicken, that we’ve served through the years, and originally they were meant to change but the moment that you tried to change something then the regulars kind of give it a little upheaval. About 30 to 35 percent of the menu changes seasonally, though. The only thing that we have that I’ve noticed is a little bit less parking, but they’re working on that now.
Do you remember your opening day in Ballard, your first day of business?
Don: Oh yeah, I remember vividly actually. We were waiting for our tables and chairs and they were not there, so we had to rent tables and chairs. We had reservations so we couldn’t do anything about it. I remember just powering those tables together and the bar stools and everything, putting them together, putting them in place, and then opening and then cooking a very busy dinner.
Michelle: We have several employees that have been with us since we opened 10 years ago and they all remember all of us, everyone from the kitchen, everyone from the front of the house, putting together the tables and chairs. Guests were starting to come and peek in early and it was crazy, but it all worked out well. It’s funny how things happen.
Don: And then that first Sunday, we didn’t know what to expect. We’re thinking oh, no big deal. Then, next thing you know, there’s almost like 100 people in there, we’re like oh no. So yeah, it was just figuring out how to deal with the business at first, but it was fun. It was a lot of fun.
What has the past decade taught you?
Don: Business-wise, you know when you’re a chef and you’re running other people’s businesses you don’t really understand all of the taxes, all of the fees, and everything so that’s one thing you learn as a business owner. You learn exactly what it’s all about. Over the years in Ballard, we’ve come to know a lot of people. A tremendous amount of people have become our friends and family over the years and we continue to do that year after year. We have people that have been coming in since the first day.
Michelle: And you go through life experiences with guests. You see them go on their first date and then we have people who get married and have their weddings in our event space. And then they come back for their first anniversary and they have a baby. We’ve seen customers pass away that we’ve been close to, so all of those relationships that we’ve built have been one of the most meaningful parts of being in this business.