That’s Italian!

A switch of college majors, a family tradition with food, and a chance encounter laid the foundation for an acclaimed Burlington restaurant

tratoria_lead_DSF0026Thomas and Lori Delia dug into his Old World roots and grew Trattoria Delia, their Burlington restaurant known for its authentic Italian cuisine and award-winning wine list.

The adage “It’s all in the timing” could have been written with Lori and Thomas Delia in mind. From their serendipitous first meeting on a chairlift to the success of their acclaimed Burlington restaurant, Trattoria Delia, the couple are proof that, as Tom says, “Everything happens for a reason.”

As founders and owners of the restaurant for the last 17 years, Lori and Tom do it all. Tom is executive chef; Lori handles bookkeeping, training, and front-of-the-house details; and they share general manger duties.

The restaurant, known for its authentic Italian cuisine, award-winning wine list, and Old World ambience, is the manifestation of Tom and Lori’s passion and love for all things Italian.

The Delias met in the mid 1980s when, via happenstance, they shared a chairlift ride at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. Lori, from Underhill, was a fine arts student at the University of Vermont, while Tom was on an internship with Rochester Institute of Technology at Three Mountain Lodge in Jeffersonville. Both diehard skiers, they ended up skiing together and became friends.

Originally a pre-med major and avid soccer player at RIT, Tom transferred into the college’s School of Food, Hotel and Tourism his junior year. “Pre-med academics were a little too strenuous for me,” he says. “My hotel school friends were having a really good time while I was at the computer lab until 3 a.m.”

His switch to food unearthed roots stemming to Tom’s paternal grandparents, both great cooks. His grandfather emigrated from Italy’s Calabria region at age 16 to marry Tom’s grandmother — with family in the same region — in a pre-arranged marriage.

Tom loved to cook with his grandmother during regular Sunday family visits. “She was the baker and pasta maker,” he says, “and my grandfather, the pepper fryer, canner, roaster. My grandmother didn’t want anything greasy in her kitchen so he cooked in the basement on a little gas stove.”

During high school in his native Oneonta, N.Y., Tom expanded his foodie roots by managing the school’s sporting event concessions. He worked college summers in Rochester restaurants.

His sister, an instructor at Smuggs, connected Tom with friends who owned the Three Mountain Lodge for his internship, leading to the fateful chairlift ride with Lori. They stayed in touch as Tom finished at RIT and Lori continued at UVM.

The road from there to the trattoria provided both of them ample opportunities to develop and hone their restaurant business skills.

After graduating, Tom was an opening manager for Bennigan’s Steak and Ale sites in Syracuse, N.Y., and Newark, Del., where he gained in-depth knowledge of restaurant systems. But, he says, the 20-hour days and constant uprooting to new cities “wasn’t the life for me.”

He moved back to Vermont — “because Lori was here” — and joined Perry Restaurant Group. Various assignments included managing Sweetwaters in Burlington, Shelburne’s Sirloin Saloon, and Dakota in Pittsfield, Mass. Lori, meanwhile, compiled her own impressive restaurant resume, joining Tom during summers to wait tables in nearby establishments.

They married in 1989 and settled in Vergennes. Lori, now graduated, juggled several jobs over the next few years including her own faux-finish painting business; designing for Truex, deGroot, Cullins in Burlington; and waitressing for the Village Pump House in Shelburne and The Inn at Shelburne Farms. Tom, who had been consulting for Mr. Ups in Middlebury, became a partner there.

It was their connection with Tom’s cousin Daniele from Italy, whom they came to know when he was enrolled in Harvard’s English as a second language program, that sowed the seeds for Trattoria Delia.

“We really hit it off,” says Tom. “His mom — my Aunt Elisabetta — is a phenomenal cook and an artist. So he and I had the same passion for food and Lori connected with Elisabetta about art.”

“Daniele said, ‘Come visit me in Italy,’ and the thought of the food, the culture, the museums sounded great,” Lori adds.

During the Delias’ first visit to Milan, says Lori, “Daniele and Elisabetta showed us this plethora of everything Italian — what to do, what to eat, what to drink, where to go. They loved sharing their knowledge and their incredible passion for food, wine, art, culture — and we were their pupils. We loved it.”

“We craved it after that,” says Tom. “We went back multiple times, visiting with them, cooking, eating, and traveling — continually learning.”

When they returned to Vermont, says Lori, “we knew then what we wanted to do, because there was nothing here like what we’d seen there.”

A friend in commercial real estate who knew they were exploring the trattoria concept showed them the site at Main and St. Paul streets. Says Tom, “We walked in and said, ‘This is just like being in the Italian Alps!’”

Circumstances married timing. Tom’s contract with Mr. Ups ended, he declined his option to buy, and Lori — laid off from Truex in a lagging economy — was looking for a job. They seized the moment and opened Trattoria Delia’s doors.

Tom explains that the trattoria concept, which offers a la carte ordering, is “the food that grandma cooked — simple, casual. The dishes I cook are rustic: simple, straightforward cooking based on high-quality ingredients.

“Lori’s front-of-the house experience and art background let us generate a concept that was something really different in Burlington. The ambience is timeless and classic.” The interior, originally an old New Hampshire sugarhouse relocated to become the Sugarhouse Restaurant and later What’s Your Beef restaurant, was designed and executed by the Delias.

“The food revolution toward true Italian cuisine was just starting when we opened,” says Lori. “We knew Burlington diners were sophisticated, well-educated, and well-traveled and would eventually appreciate what we were trying to do.”

That appreciation didn’t come overnight. “We initially had some far-out menu items while people were asking for Chicken Parmesan,” she recalls. “We’d ask, ‘Have we got this right?’ But we stuck with what we knew was authentic and didn’t stray from that. Being students of Tom’s relatives in Italy carried through — we taught our staff and they educated our guests.”

In the end, she says, it was a process of nurturing and teaching others and sharing their passion for what they’d experienced and wanted others to experience. “And people thought it was great.”

Service at the trattoria is “casual but proficient and knowledgeable. They want guests to feel relaxed, not intimidated. “When it gets too complicated,” Tom says, “Lori will say ‘Let’s get back to keeping it simple.’”

The philosophy worked. The 86-seat restaurant, serving some 100 meals nightly during the week and 180 on weekends, has grown 3 percent to 7 percent annually over the last 17 years. The restaurant’s celebrated Italian wine list has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 1995.

Nancy Jenkins and her husband, Bryan Jackson, have had regular Friday “date nights” at the trattoria for years. “Lori and Tom take great pride in running the restaurant and it shows,” says Jackson. “The food is fabulous, the place well-managed, the staff well-trained. Tom is so knowledgeable with food and wine pairings and Lori is amazing. Her touches are all over the place.”

Longtime friend Kevin Clayton, the owner of Village Wine and Coffee in Shelburne, echoes that. “They’ve set the bar for delivering consistently high quality food and are passionate about things being done right. The integrity they’ve built into their business carries through to their personal lives.”

The connection to quality ingredients starts at home. For years Tom has prepared his dishes with greens, herbs, and heirloom vegetables grown with seeds from Italy in the couple’s quarter-acre Charlotte garden.

Vermont, Tom notes, “is a special place. We have access to so many great ingredients — local products — and there’s so many new things happening in sustainable agriculture.”

Part of the Vermont Fresh Network, linking local farmers and food producers with chefs and restaurants, the restaurant also belongs to the Slow Food organization, which, says Tom, “believes people need to know where food comes from to appreciate it. Food doesn’t reach the table fast — it was planted, grown, harvested, cooked — where commercially grown food does happen fast and is mass-produced.”

The trattoria also participated in a UVM agriculture department study, which evolved into the Intervale Food Hub, connecting farmers to markets to increase Vermont farms’ sustainability.

Family is also important. Tom shares dinner at home three nights a week with Lori and their two sons, Alessandro and Enzo, ages 10 and 15 — both soccer players — and the family snowboards together. Chef Bruce Steward, who has been with the trattoria for 12 years, fills in when Tom’s away.

They continue to travel to Italy once or twice a year. “We’ve gotten to know our wine producers, we go on restaurant tours, and spend time with my family and really connect with them,” says Tom. They tour a different Italian city each trip with their children to encourage development of their own cultural roots.

Their long-term plan? “We’ve talked about a cookbook, leading gastronomic tours in Italy — a lot of things. When it happens, it’ll happen naturally.”

“We met on a chair lift for a reason and are sitting here for a reason. Who knows what will be next?” •