The Sauce King

Using culinary wizardry inherited from his grandmother

by Will Lindner

dell-amore-narrow0718Frank Dell’Amore’s grandmother Filomena D’Agosto’s image graces the labels of the nationally acclaimed marinara sauces he produces from family recipes at Dell’Amore Premium Marinara Sauces in Colchester.

When Frank Dell’Amore talks about his grandmother Filomena D’Agosto, the past comes alive. His words, and the quiet passion of his memories, evoke the sights and sounds of the teeming immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York, nearly a century ago — fire hydrants, hoops and stickball; tenement steps and pushcarts; rambunctious lads in “newsboy caps” and women clad modestly in the traditional habits of their homelands, their heads swathed in scarves tied at the chin; Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty looming nearby in Upper New York Bay.

Filomena came to the U.S. shortly after World War I, when in her early 20s. She soon married and started a family that included her daughter Lillian, who, in 1951, gave birth to Frank, the grandson who, some 35 years later, would begin production of a line of marinara sauces in Burlington that have gone nationwide. On their label is the striking portrait of a young, dark-eyed Filomena D’Agosto, adorned with a long necklace, her head resting upon her right wrist, her hand vanishing into her wavy hair. Behind her, barely visible, rises a pair of stone columns.

“The picture was taken in 1914 in a photographer’s studio in Italy during the war,” Dell’Amore explains. The columns were classical images in the backdrop he used for photographing his subjects.

Filomena was born in Agropoli in 1895. Eighty-seven years later, Dell’Amore and his bride, Lorene Spagnuolo, made the journey in reverse, visiting Agropoli on their honeymoon in 1982.

“It was thrilling to be in the house my grandmother was born in,” he says. “My mom’s cousin took me out fishing in the Mediterranean, in what was basically a giant rowboat.” They dined on the catch that evening.

The Old World lives on not only in Dell’Amore’s wistful recollections and family lore, but also in the five varieties of sauce he and his staff of six produce now in Colchester.

The company remains largely a family enterprise, as two of those employees are Dell’Amore’s sons, Turi and Anthony; his brother Dave is a part-owner, but presently is not actively involved.

He mentions Brian Dushaney, a production worker he hired 23 years ago through Project Hire, a supported employment program through the Howard Center. “They came and worked alongside him for several months,” says Dell’Amore. “He’s so loyal, and we couldn’t do this without him.”

Their marinara — a word Dell’Amore defines as “a simple, quick, light tomato sauce — has inspired glowing reviews from coast to coast: “Hide the jar when company comes, and take all the credit,” wrote the Boston Globe Magazine; “Best of the Bunch,” echoed the San Francisco Chronicle.

If anything, the testimonials from customers on the company’s website are even more effusive, praising the “homemade” taste of the sauces, their low sodium content, and the evocative, authentic appearance created by Filomena’s image on the label.

Dell’Amore casts all praise back to the unassuming culinary wizardry of his grandmother, a talent that other members of his family — notably, his mother and sister — seem to have inherited.

“They never wrote anything down,” says Dell’Amore. Yet he somehow managed to harness their unwritten recipes into five successful products: Dell’Amore Original Recipe, Sweet Basil & Garlic, Romana, Spicy Recipe, and the newest, Pizza Sauce.

When he began commercial production of the sauces in the late 1980s it was under Filomena’s name. However, a D.C. restaurant claimed a trademark for that title, so he changed it to Dell’Amore. He regrets not having pursued the case further, as he’s since learned that a national trademark requires interstate commerce, which that restaurant didn’t have.

“But I told my grandma, ‘Your picture is always going to be on that label.’ Because she lived to see all this!” he marvels, and imitates her accented English: “She said, ‘I canna believe it, Frankie!”

Dell’Amore was born in Brooklyn and grew up from age 6 in Valley Stream, a Long Island suburb of New York City. After graduating high school he wanted to sample a “more countrified” environment, and attended the State University of New York at its campus in Plattsburgh. At the dawn of his junior year he struck up a relationship with the new owner of the Monopole, a landmark tavern in downtown Plattsburgh since 1898.

“It’s a beautiful place, with a mahogany bar and pool tables,” says Dell’Amore. It attracted a staid local clientele, but new owner Brett Heiss invested substantially in renovations and began courting a college crowd.

Dell’Amore saw an opening.

“I said, ‘There’s no pizza in this town! Can I produce pizza and sell it here?’” So while still a student himself, he made what he calls “Grandma’s style” pizza — square and crusty — and sold it at the Monopole.

The Monopole is also where Dell’Amore met Spagnuolo, his future wife, who was studying to be a teacher. It was her career that brought the couple across Lake Champlain to Vermont, when she was hired to teach kindergarten in Fairfax. Dell’Amore scouted the area for a suitable place to go into business for himself, and in 1980, at age 29, launched Filomena’s Pizza, a humble enterprise (only eight tables) on Riverside Avenue in Burlington.

What his customers liked most, he soon learned, was his homemade sauce. So he began arriving at 5 a.m. to make larger quantities of it, sealing it the old-fashioned way, in boiling water, and then looked for local retail outlets interested in stocking it. Two of the first ones, he says, were Healthy Living Market in Burlington and Shelburne Supermarket.

After a couple of years he faced a dilemma: whether to continue running the restaurant, or put all his energies into producing and marketing his grandmother’s marinara. It wasn’t a hard choice.

“There was a lot of stress in running the restaurant,” he says. “And I wanted to grow this thing [the sauce]. I saw the writing on the wall: This was my destiny.”

So he made the leap, closing the restaurant and renting production facilities periodically in Barre until, in 1993, he moved the company into its present quarters on Hercules Drive in Colchester. It’s a remarkably modest operation for a company doing business nationally: basically, a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, with actual production of Dell’Amore sauces confined within a sanitized, climate-controlled space of less than 800 square feet isolated behind thick ribbons of translucent plastic. There used to be an office, but as demand increased, the office, by necessity, became a freezer. Dell’Amore now conducts business at a narrow desk beside the loading dock. He accepts the spatial demotion gracefully. Che sarà, sarà.

His instinct is still to conduct business in a modest, personal style. Dell’Amore’s national exposure began when, during a family visit with his wife’s mother in Florida, Dell’Amore ventured into a Publix Super Market and handed the manager a jar of marinara. (“You can’t do that anymore,” he laments.)

Impressed, the manager provided a list of Publix stores, and Dell’Amore sent each a box with a mix of his company’s products. Eventually, a Publix executive connected him to a distributor, and the association took off. Dell’Amore is now carried by KeHE Distributors and by United Natural Foods (UNFI). Another important connection is Costco; the membership-only bulk-purchase chain proved to be a vein so rich that Dell’Amore hired an affable representative, Pat Bategan, to host product samplings at stores all around the East.

Combined, these resources have carried Dell’Amore’s sauces to some 30 states. Direct sales to customers, facilitated by the company’s website, are a growing segment of Dell’Amore’s market.

Vermont customers are often surprised to discover that it’s a local product. That was true for Allisyn Richards, general manager at the Marriott Residence Inn in Colchester. Every other Wednesday, Richards hosts a reception that features “tastes of the area” to interest her guests. Searching for new ideas not long ago, she discovered Dell’Amore’s sauce at the local Costco, having no idea it was made nearby, and gave it a try.

“We put it out and people loved it. I mean loved it!” she says. “So now we sell his products in our market, because we have extended-stay visitors here.”

Frank Dell’Amore’s enthusiasm is another drawing card. “He’s always open-arms,” says Richards. “’Whatever you need! This is exciting!’”

By contrast, Rob Mahoney has known Dell’Amore ever since the pizzeria days on Riverside Avenue. Mahoney frequented Filomena’s as a youth, then carried the sauces when he worked as a distributor for McKenzie, the Burlington meat wholesaler. Mahoney now owns Aviation Deli & Fine Foods in South Burlington.

“We use Frank’s sauces for all our Italian dishes,” he says: “Spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella baked ziti … it complements the fresh pasta we use. And Frank gives me ideas for certain kinds of foods. He’s not like most manufacturers, who don’t give you the time of day.”

Lorene Spagnuolo, whose job offer in Fairfax lured the young couple across the lake from Plattsburgh, retired last year after a 34-year teaching career spent mostly at Allen Brook Elementary School in Williston. As for her husband, though, carrying on Filomena’s culinary tradition does not leave him much time to pursue other interests. Those include music: He’s a guitarist, with a perhaps surprising interest in early bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Anthony also plays, and though his interests run to artists like British songwriter Ed Sheeran, father and son occasionally work out on reggae songs together.

Their guitars are tucked away in the shelves, among the cartons of marinara and pizza sauce waiting to be shipped — jars whose lids now bear a newer image of Filomena, taken in 1990 at age 95, holding her 4-year-old great-grandson, Turi.

Her legacy is secure.

For the Dell’Amores, the beat goes on.