Although it’s not his given name, chef and entrepreneur Louis Del Conte has been known by countless cooks, servers and other restaurant industry people as Luigi.
That nickname has stuck with him for decades, from his early days managing restaurants in Washington D.C., to owning restaurants on Mount Desert Island, to today, as the namesake for his line of all-natural, gourmet pasta and simmer sauces, Luigi Del Conte Sauces.
“People call me Luigi, so it was a pretty natural choice for a name,” said Del Conte, who has lived in Hancock County on and off for the past 20 years.
The sauce business has been good. Since Louis and his wife, Colleene, began producing in 2013, Luigi Del Conte has grown from having its products sold in just a handful of stores and farmers markets in Maine to being available for purchase in more than 100 locations throughout the Northeast, including Hannaford supermarkets in Maine, Crosby’s Marketplaces in Massachusetts and Whole Foods Markets in Maine and Massachusetts.
“We have big plans,” Del Conte said. “We’re just getting started.”
Del Conte grew up on the far southern tip of New Jersey in the Wildwood area. His proudly Italian-American family was in the hospitality business, running a bar and several hotels around the southern Jersey Shore, a popular tourist destination. Del Conte grew up in the service industry, and dining rooms and kitchens are where he feels most at home.
“I grew up in an Italian household, so this is definitely my kind of thing. But the food we ate growing up is very different from what I’m making. We didn’t have much money. We used tomato paste to make sauce,” Del Conte said.
Throughout the 1980s, Del Conte managed the front of house for high-end Italian restaurants in Washington D.C., serving members of Congress and other political movers and shakers. He generally worked in management instead of in kitchens throughout his restaurant career, but he was always a devoted home cook and picked up plenty of skills over the years from the many chefs he worked with.
“My cooking skills are self-taught. It’s a natural thing. I say it’s God-given. I put a dish together and it makes people smile, and that’s really how this whole thing came about,” he said.
In 1994 Del Conte was invited by a friend to come spend the summer in Bar Harbor, waiting tables and enjoying the tourist season on Mount Desert Island. He fell in love with two things while he was there.
“I fell in love with the area, and then I met my wife Colleene and fell in love with her, and the rest is pretty much history,” Del Conte said.
After relocating to Florida for a year, the couple moved back to Maine, opening Little Luigi’s, an Italian restaurant in Bar Harbor, in 1996. The restaurant was open for three seasons before Del Conte again relocated to Florida, where for he ran the dining room at the Mar-a-Lago Club, housed within Donald Trump’s estate in Palm Beach. The Del Contes then returned again to Maine in 2004 to open Bella Mare, another upscale Italian restaurant in Southwest Harbor, which was in business until 2008.
After a few more back-and-forth trips between Florida and Maine, in 2013 Louis and Colleene found themselves in Maine in a surprising position for two people who had worked in the service industry for more than 30 years: They were out of work. After ruminating for a bit on what their next step would be, they landed on the marinara sauce that Del Conte made in his MDI restaurants over the years. People loved it, but would they want to buy it in a jar?
“We were trying to figure out our next step, so we took our unemployment checks, and with that money made our first batches of sauce to sell,” he said. “We sold our first jars at Global Beverage Warehouse [in Ellsworth], and we sold out of them. And [Global Beverage Warehouse] sold lots of wine. It was a good start.”
Del Conte has developed three more sauces to go with the classic marinara, which is made with plum tomatoes, Barbera wine from Bar Harbor Cellars, garlic, onion and basil. The Spicy ala Vodka sauce is a classic vodka sauce made with tomatoes, red wine, Maine-made Barton Vodka, cream, pecorino Romano cheese and red pepper to give it an extra kick.
“The marinara is by far our best seller,” Del Conte said. “We do a lot of demos in stores to let people taste our stuff. Once they try it, we have an 85 percent try-to-buy rate.”
The two other sauces are white sauces. The Sambuca Sauce is a decadent cream-based sauce made with Sambuca liqueur, olive oil, shallots, lemon and pecorino Romano cheese, with just a very slight flavor of anise from the Sambuca. The Caribbeano Sauce is the only non-Italian-style product Del Conte makes — a slightly sweet, luscious sauce made with coconut milk, cream, spiced rum and a blend of orange, lemon and lime juices.
The idea with the Del Conte sauces is that the home cook can have a restaurant-quality meal ready in 20 minutes or less, and the price point — between $7 and $12 per jar — reflects that. Each sauce has been carefully tested by the Del Contes to ensure they are up to the standards what they might serve in a restaurant. Until Oct. 2015, they were making each batch by hand in their kitchen in Hancock. They now make and pack their sauces at Pemberton’s in Gray.
“If you tried to go out and make these sauces on your own, you’d spend a ton of money on ingredients. It’s so much easier to just get a jar and start adding things to it,” he said. “They’re extremely versatile. Throw in some pasta, some seafood, some chicken — whatever you want. They are designed to make it easy.”
Though the business has grown by leaps and bounds in 2016, in the past two months alone the Del Contes have added Whole Foods and more Hannafords to its list of locations available, as well as in the dining halls at Northern Maine Community College in Fort Kent. They also have sauces in a few stores in Florida. In 2017 they hope to expand to more institutional settings, as well as expand their reach to cover the rest of the East Coast and even into the Midwest.
“We’ve got eight more sauces in the works,” he said. “We also eventually want to expand into salad dressings and some desserts.”
Though Louis is regularly hustling to sell his products, he says he prefers what he’s doing now to the restaurant industry.
“I’d never go back. I love this,” he said. “And usually, I’m home at 5 p.m. I get to have dinner with my family. I’ll take that any day.”
Luigi Del Conte offers many recipes for each sauce, as well as a full list of locations where it is available, on its website, luigidelcontesauces.com.