As his wife Wendy looks on, Vinny DeLio talks about his 43 years as a restaurateur at Vinny’s Lunch in Port Chester.
Richard Abel|Westmore News
As his wife Wendy looks on, Vinny DeLio talks about his 43 years as a restaurateur at Vinny’s Lunch in Port Chester. Richard Abel|Westmore News

Vinny’s is the last of the old time Port Chester luncheonettes. At one time there were about 10 in town, but the others have all closed, and Vinny’s Lunch, which has been in business nearly 43 years at 182 North Main St., stands alone.

While its founder and namesake, Vinny DeLio, as well as his brother Anthony are retiring on June 1, Vinny’s will carry on under the ownership of Guatemalan-born Esvin and Judy Laynes. Esvin (he’s fine with Edwin, too) has worked the counter at Vinny’s for 13 years, Judy has been a server for five.

The Layneses, who live in Port Chester, plan to keep the name, the menu and the specials the same, at least for now. Their theory is that these have been working for 43 years, so why change them now.

Although his customers have been driving him crazy about retiring, Vinny said “I’ve just had enough.”

“He gets up every morning at 3:30 and gets here at 4:00,” said his wife Wendy, who works at the luncheonette on Fridays and helps with catering. “He comes home, I feed him dinner and he lies on the couch and goes to sleep and I go out.”

“I start at 4 and do all my preps,” said Vinny. “You can do so much when no one’s around. Once people come in, forget about it.”

Vinny was 20 when he became a restaurateur. He took over Rossi’s Luncheonette July 31, 1973 and bought the building from Ellen Brown who owned the liquor store next door three or four years later.

Vinny immigrated to the United States from Italy in April 1968. He started peeling potatoes and onions at Jerry’s Lunch on North Main Street for Jerry DiRoberto, later working for him at his restaurant J. DiRoberto’s on Willett Avenue (now Sonora). One day Jerry told Vinny he knew of a place he could buy for $1,000.

“I came down, we talked, it was in June, it was a matter of a few weeks,” said DeLio. He put $1,000 down and paid off the $5,000 balance in about a year.

His younger brother Anthony started working at Vinny’s when he was in junior high and is now 57.

“I couldn’t have done it without him,” said Vinny. His brother Mario was also part of the team for 30 years, calling it a day in 2002.

“Tony has been on that grill for 40 years,” said Wendy, who commented that neither brother ever eats while they’re on the job. That’s how they keep their trim physiques.

An expanding menu

Originally the classic luncheonette with its counter and a few tables just served hamburgers and hotdogs, Vinny recalled.

“Every year we added a few things,” his brother chimed in.

There are still burgers and traditional breakfasts on the menu but also sandwiches and Italian specialties as well as daily lunch specials. Vinny’s has great meatballs, excellent chili, wonderful beef stew and super fresh cold seafood salad, the latter only on Fridays.

When Vinny worked for Jerry DiRoberto, the Sawpit caught on fire and one of the chefs from there, Joe Tamara, came over to work at J. DiRoberto’s while the popular Port Chester restaurant was closed. “I learned a lot from him,” said Vinny. “He made a gravy out of nothing, no recipe whatsoever. He never wrote anything down.”

Today the grilled chicken with broccoli rabe and fresh mozzarella, steak hero with peppers, onions, chili and cheese and the bacon and egg, cheese and chili breakfast are among the biggest sellers.

A slew of regulars

Vinny’s has many regular customers, some who even eat two meals a day there, hanging around in between meals to shoot the breeze. It’s also an habitual eating spot for police officers, Department of Public Works employees and tradespeople.

“I have repeat customers for 40 years,” said Vinny.

“Al Vita’s family has been coming here for four generations,” added Anthony.

Still, Vinny said the neighborhood has changed and “the people I had 30 years ago have gone or retired.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mike Imbrogno from Chicahominy, Mike D’Andrea and Mike Marullo from Cos Cob and Paul O’Gorman from Greenwich were eating at the large table in a little alcove that’s hidden from view.

They go to Vinny’s a couple of times a week and say parking is an issue. “If the food wasn’t good, we wouldn’t be coming,” said Imbrogno, who has been frequenting this old-fashioned luncheonette that doesn’t try to be something it isn’t for 40 years. The others are relative newcomers at 10-15.

D’Andrea said his father went to Vinny’s from the day it opened.

Imbrogno likes the linguine, D’Andrea is partial to Friday because it’s seafood day with fried clams and mussels. O’Gorman likes the salmon special on Wednesday. D’Andrea commented on Tuesday’s roasted chicken or pork chops and raved about the seafood salad. Sometimes people fight over the last portion of a particular special, they said.

D’Andrea goes to Vinny’s for the entertainment and the camaraderie.

“The owners have been very gracious over the years,” said O’Gorman. “They are very gracious family people. I like to support family-owned businesses.

“It’s an institution and we are the patients,” he concluded.

What does the future hold?

It’s been a good ride, Vinny and his wife agreed. They have made a decent living and put their three children, who all still live with them in Port Chester, through college.

Upon retirement, Vinny plans to go to Europe to see his mom and two sisters who live in Calabria. Tony is also going to Italy this summer. The boys call their mom every Sunday.

“We’re going to travel,” said Wendy, and “he’s going to get a physical. That’s number one.”

As far as hobbies, Vinny likes cooking and walking and going to the gym if he has time. The luncheonette is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and he cooks at home on Sunday. It was also open on Sunday until he got married in May 1982.

“You don’t have any hobbies when you work here,” said Anthony. “I want to know what it is to do nothing.” So he’ll take it easy for a while, go to Italy to visit family and do a little traveling with his wife and three kids, “things I haven’t had time to do.” He’ll also be around to help the new owners for a while.

A new era at Vinny’s

Originally Vinny had someone interested in buying the luncheonette, but when that fell through, Esvin and Judy inquired about taking over. Esvin’s brother Erick, who worked at Vinny’s for two years before moving on, will be assisting, too.

Esvin expects Vinny to come in to critique but will also welcome his and Anthony’s support.

“I really did not think about it,” said Esvin about taking over. “I just got the opportunity. You know how life is, you get the opportunity and they never come back. I know most of it, how to do it. So I said to myself, ‘why not?’”

Bittersweet farewell

“I would like to thank all of our customers,” said Anthony.

“I am going to miss them,” added Wendy.