By Gary Morton
Catholic News Service
WILMINGTON, Del. (CNS) — Father Richard DeLillio must cook a mean chicken dinner. Why else would someone pay $7,500 for the seven-course meal, and pay for the priest’s flight and accommodations so he could prepare it in Australia?
Dr. Paul Edwards of Sydney made the $7,500 bid via cell phone during last year’s “In Vino Veritas” (In Wine There Is Truth) auction supporting Nativity Preparatory School of Wilmington, where Father DeLillio, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, is executive director.
Nativity Prep offers a tuition-free education to middle school boys from low-income families.
While Edwards’ bid was extraordinary, Father DeLillio, 68, has used his Chicken Olevano dish to raise more than $100,000 at auctions for the Oblates, Nativity Prep or his Rotary club. The priest will accept more than one bid for his special meals, if the price is right.
Paul and Sue Edwards met Father DeLillio in 1991 while he was a pastor in North Carolina, where Paul Edwards worked. The priest baptized their daughter Jessica. “We have supported him in all his fundraising efforts,” Paul Edwards wrote in an e-mail to The Dialog, Wilmington diocesan newspaper.
The Edwards family has visited Nativity Prep and was so impressed with the school’s vision that their daughter Sarah plans to volunteer at the school for a year.
Sue Edwards said the preparation for Father DeLillio’s meal is worth the price.
“The best part of dinner was the shopping and the tasting; it was like being in Italy,” she said in an e-mail. She accompanied Father DeLillio to Italian markets in Sydney where the local Italian deli owners “became his best friends.”
Father DeLillio began making the dish out of necessity in 1994, when he was development director for the Oblates’ Wilmington-Philadelphia province and had invited a couple who had donated artwork to an Oblate auction to dinner.
Three hours before they were to arrive he wasn’t sure what he would make but put together a meal with ingredients on hand — chicken breasts, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and basil.
The next year he added green and red peppers and squash and named the dish Chicken Olevano after the olive oil that his mother’s family has produced for about two centuries in the town of Olevano Sul Tusciano, in the Campania region of Italy. His mother, Dorothy Poppiti DeLillio, picked olives for the oil as a child before coming to the United States.
The red and green peppers and the white squash play up the Italian connection, providing the colors of Italy’s flag. The dinner soon became a staple of auctions Father DeLillio helped organize.
His meals start with wedding soup, then pasta and an “intermezzo,” usually a sorbet, to cleanse the palate. The next course is the Chicken Olevano and Father DeLillio’s eggplant parmesan recipe. A sweet salad, a cheese plate and dessert close the meal.
“The dessert’s usually something easy like Italian ice cream or Italian cookies,” he said. “I’m not a dessert maker so I need something easy.”
Father DeLillio said he didn’t need to cook much for himself until he taught at The Catholic University of America in Washington from 1980 to 1991. “You had to eat something,” he said matter-of-factly, so he would ask his sisters how to prepare different meals.
The priest had also picked up a few of his mother’s recipes from his father, Joseph, who passed them along after Dorothy DeLillio died in 1974.
Before he died in 1992, Joseph DeLillio taught his son to how to make sauce and meatballs and cook peppers, potatoes and onions.
Today the priest’s parents would be proud of their son’s culinary expertise, even if they might be flabbergasted by the amount people are willing to pay for it. Even Father DeLillio seems a little surprised.
“They always pay $3,000, $4,000, $5,000. And I keep telling everybody, it’s still going to be chicken; it’s not anything but chicken.”