You can't talk about burgers in Montreal without Dilallo. Few restaurants in the city have been open as long. Few are as rooted to a particular neighbourhood and community. For the original Dilallo, it all started in 1929 in Ville-Émard, two years after the completion of Angrignon Park. The small, homegrown chain likes to boast that its burger "tastes exactly as it did more than 80 years ago." In fact, Dilallo's famous Buck Burger (with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, mustard, relish, cheese, capicolla, homemade peppers) is still made "on the same custom stoves designed and used by Luigi Di Lallo upon emigrating from Italy" a century ago. We recently spoke to partner Joe Maselli about the burger heart and soul of Ville-Émard.
Dilallo has been a fixture in Montreal since 1929. That is remarkable.
[Laughs] I look good for an 86 year old! Look, the biggest thing I tell people is Schwartz's opened in 1928 and we opened in 1929. But we're in Ville-Émard. We don't have the Saint-Laurent reputation to build our brand and image. The older generation knows us because we've always been involved in hockey. The kids in the neighbourhood grew up with us. That helped us out a lot. People like Mario Lemieux, Marc Bergevin, Ken Dryden, they all came here. When Dryden had his retirement, he mentioned Schwartz's and Dilallo. We're here almost 100 years now.
It came out to a dollar, so it was the Buck Burger.
The Buck Burger has a lot to do with that longevity. Can you talk about this unusual burger and how it came to pass?
The Buck Burger is basically a burger that included all our ingredients at the time. Now we have pickles, bacon, you name it. But customers back in the old days would come in and add this, add that. The family decided there was a demand for it. Whatever's in the kitchen, add it to a burger. But the question was, what to charge for it and what to call it? It came out to a dollar, so it was the Buck Burger. The combination is great, there's not a lot of everything in it. One slice of pepper, one slice of cheese. And it’s thoughtfully constructed. The pepper goes on top of the tomato, the lettuce is last so the burger doesn't slide. Even down to the onion, relish and mustard. It's not portioned but the way it's prepared, it’s balanced. And again, we're talking 2015 but this was done by accident. They weren't intellectualizing it. They tried something, by trial and error, and eventually came up with a formula that’s stood the test of time.
What percentage of Dilallo’s sales comes from the Buck Burger?
It's 60% of customers that take it now. The contender that's trying to dethrone it is the bacon cheeseburger. It's challenging it. The Buck Burger's taking a bit of a beating [Laughs].
We’re not increasing prices to make more profit.
Beef prices have risen dramatically over the last year. Has Dilallo been affected?
You know what, it's gotten to the point where it’s definitely having an impact. Our burger is significant, it's generous, and our beef is hand-cut, not portioned. It's become a discussion point for us, with our franchises, our suppliers. We have to pass the cost down to customers, we can't hold back anymore. Otherwise I'll have to buy my own cows. Customers need to be educated that we’re not increasing prices to make more profit but because our costs are going through the roof. The fact that we're small and local, we're able to keep prices competitive. I think we're the cheapest burger in town.
What is Dilallo’s expansion model?
There aren't too many. There are four Dilallo's now. Last year we launched a pilot project, at Jean-Talon and Papineau, a Dilallo Burger Bar. The response has been so great, we're renovating and enlarging it. It's a full bar, where you can come and watch hockey, UFC and so on. Our restaurants are family-oriented but this is different. It’s 18 and over, a place to watch the game, have a few drinks and eat some great burgers.
I used to come in Saturday mornings and cut the capicollo at 8:30 a.m.
How did you get your start in the business?
My business partner is the third generation of the family, Louis Di Lallo. He’s the grandson. I was an employee at 12 years old [circa 1991]. I used to come in Saturday mornings and cut the capicollo at 8:30 a.m. We cut it ourselves, on site. Then I became a waiter, a fryer, a cook and eventually went to school to become a C.A. In 2007 I became a partner. I lived down the street basically. We interacted a lot with the family. They were like uncles to me. The Di Lallos were very active with the church and the family did a lot of community outreach in Ville-Émard, being involved with sports and the schools. We still do that here at the original location and encourage that with all our franchises.