Top-notch dining with a twist
Feb 15, 2015 11:21PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
By Carla Lucas
On the second floor of the Trabant Center on the University of Delaware main campus, a sign over a door reads, "Vita Nova" ("new life" in Latin). Pass through the door and you will enjoy a fine dining experience comparable to the region's four- and five-star establishments, with fine china and silver place settings, highly trained and efficient servers, and top-notch gourmet cuisine. On the menu are such choices as chargrilled filet mignon with syrah demi-glace served with potato gratin with fresh thyme and gruyere, and sweet corn and poblano-stuffed zucchini, or roasted Scottish salmon served with saffron risotto, lemon kale, and grape tomatoes.
One difference between this restaurant and others in the area is that Vita Nova is a student-run restaurant, a lab for students who are pursuing a business degree through the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management Department (HRIM) in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.
“Vita Nova allows students to experience working in a restaurant,” said Dr. Sheryl Kline, department chair for the HRIM. “They have to think on their feet. They learn [what] matters. It is real-life and in the moment.”
But just because this is a learning experience for students doesn't mean your expectations should be lowered. The twist is that while you enjoy the rose pepper seared duck breast served with golden farro pilaf, you can also interact with the students. By enjoying a gourmet dinner of prosciutto-wrapped mahi-mahi served with crispy kale, fennel and brown butter risotto, you are also helping to advance a student's education.
As part of the curriculum, students take three semesters in the Vita Nova restaurant lab. As freshmen, Vita Nova I students are introduced to a commercial kitchen, and the course focuses on safe food handling, knife skills, and basic food prep techniques. For some, this is their first time in a commercial kitchen, and they gain an understanding about what is expected early in their college education.
As sophomores or juniors, students take Vita Nova II - Lunch, and rotate through all the aspects of presenting the weekday lunch buffet. In the kitchen, all the selections --breads, salads, entrees, side dishes, fruit and cheese trays, and desserts -- must be ready by opening. The front-of-house staff must have the tables properly set, have the day's menu memorized, and be prepared to properly serve the beverages and take care of their guests.
In Vita Nova III - Dinner, upperclassmen experience what it takes to run a fine restaurant. Students rotate between 24 different positions, experiencing all the aspects of running a restaurant and gaining valuable knowledge that will be used in their hospitality careers.
Students who excel in the required three semesters may opt to take a fourth semester, Vita Nova Honors. This course trains them further in leadership as they act as the restaurant's managers, create the menus for the next semester, and train the underclassmen coming through the program.
Four instructors work with the students on a daily basis. Joe DiGregorio, director of the Vita Nova lab, had years as an executive chef in Atlantic City, Vail, Colo., and internationally with the Aramark Corporation before coming to the Vita Nova lab. Debbie Ellingsworth, who opened Pizza by Elizabeth, is now the lab's executive sous chef, and brings her extensive pastry and baking knowledge to the students. Bernd Mayer, former banquet manager at the Hotel DuPont, works closely to train the students in service as the dining room manager. Venka Pyle, a former owner/operator of two restaurants, is director of restaurant operations, and works with students on the business side of restaurant management -- from food inventories to linens management.
"It is like opening a new restaurant every day, with a new student in a new position," Pyle said. "There is tremendous enthusiasm and excitement. Our students are 100 percent engaged in what they are doing."
DiGregorio said the kitchen experience is invaluable for students who want to run their own restaurants or go into hospitality management. They learn enough about food preparation that they could handle a dinner service if their executive chef or cooking staff didn't show up. Some students further their educations at a culinary school to become executive chefs.
"Our mission is to educate," said Kline, "but at the same time, the restaurant is operated as a business."
Students learn how to price the meals and order supplies. If too much filet mignon is ordered, the students must decide if they should lower the price to encourage more orders, or turn it into beef stew for the lunch buffet.
At the time of the restaurant's opening, 25 years ago, the space and decor were modern and trendy. Today, the interior feels a little dated and new spaces are needed. With a donation from the family of one of the HRIM's current students, Vita Nova will get a new life this summer with a renovation. The bar in the Darden Bistro will be replaced with more table seating for small groups. A new 20-person private dining area will be added. The decor will be updated in warmer tones, with the addition of wood and stone in the interior. Patrons who come during the fall semester will be surprised by all the changes. It's a new life for Vita Nova's atmosphere.
"Our program is a stepping stone into the hospitality industry with a 92 percent placement rate before graduation," said Kline. "Our model works."
What to Expect at Vita Nova
Vita Nova is only open during the fall and spring semesters. It is open to the public.
The lunch buffet ($14.95) is available Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Dinner is served Wednesday to Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The four-course dinner ($30 to 40) includes an appetizer trio, salad, entree, and dessert sampler, plus bread and intermezzo.
The Darden Bistro is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and features tapas-style fare. A three-course theater menu (appetizer, entree and dessert) is offered on evenings that coincide with a performance at the nearby REP Theater. Reservations are not required for the Darden Bistro.
The wine list features between 40 and 100 wines from around the world. Many come from wineries operated by HRIM alumni. Reservations are highly recommended for both lunch and dinner.