Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dolci Di Maria: From Designers to Desserts

What's the strangest job interview you've ever had?  I'll bet  Mary Tantillo of Dolci Di Maria can top that.  Mary recalled  " I was told to get  onto the elevator with Diane Von Furstenberg, she looked me up and down and then asked me 'What's your sign?'.  I told her I was a Virgo. When the doors opened and I walked out to the receptionist I was told I had the job."  Diane Von Furstenberg, the fashion designer, is famous for the wrap dress and her DvF line.  Hired for being bilingual (Italian and French), Mary ended up working for Diane Von Furstenberg as an assistant for 5 years.  During that time Mary planned lavish parties and vacations and credits that work  experience with teaching her to pay meticulous attention to detail. 

(Mary Tantillo, owner of Dolci Di Maria - a gluten & dairy free baking company)

But how does someone with a master's degree in Italian languages end up as a baker and owner of a gluten and dairy free baking company with accounts throughout the United States? It certainly wasn't to accommodate the increased demand for gluten-free products prompted by stars and fad diets.   Mary's oldest son has both gluten intolerance and a dairy allergy and in order to make him desserts she began baking and experimenting with different gluten-free flours and mixes.  "Pretty soon I was making these gluten-free pastries and serving them to my friends and they couldn't believe that they were gluten-free...or that I had made them!".

Although Mary has no professional training as a baker she has fond memories of her Sicilian relatives and their delicious Italian pastries, "So I think it was in my blood." She also lived in Italy and she used to " to visit the pastry shops. Everything was so beautiful...and you know, you eat with your eyes first." 
  Mary caught my attention in 2006 when she was a vendor at the very first Ingles Gluten Free Expo that we held at Carolina Day School.  It was Mary's first foray into the world of expos and food events and I remember clearly that she had a beautiful display of cupcakes. What impressed me most was that every cupcake was perfectly iced and you knew you were in for a treat.   When the cupcakes were sold they were  placed carefully into boxes and sealed with the pink "Dolci Di Maria" sticker... very elegant - a lot like an Italian pastry shop.

(Mary Tantillo, owner of Dolci Di Maria, and Terri Lenhart package chocolate gluten and dairy free cupcakes)

Two years ago Dolci Di Maria's operation moved from Mary's home to a warehouse facility in Swannanoa about a mile from Ingles corporate offices. Both the North Carolina Small Business Technology Development Center -SBTDC - ( ) and Blue Ridge Food Ventures have been instrumental in the growth of her business.  The day I stopped by their warehouse and baking facility Mary and her staff were in the midst of  product testing of a muffin made with stevia.

(Morgan Sprague and Kristina Deacon work on the Morning Glory muffin mix)

No one was very happy with the results, Kristina Deacon and Morgan Sprague pronounced it "too bitter" and I agreed.  Mary said that they get requests for sugar-free items so this was the first of many experiments.  Mary and her staff pay close attention to detail to ensure products are gluten and dairy-free.  "When I get new gluten-free flours in I make sure I test them before I start to use them to make sure they are indeed gluten-free."
Mary has come a long way from making her gluten-free desserts in the kitchen of her home, sharing them with friends and delivering them to restaurants and coffee shops. While she still delivers to local accounts; trucks pull up at the loading dock of her Swannanoa baking facility to pick up cases of her gluten-free goodies and deliver them to accounts throughout the U.S.  Dolci Di Maria employs several full and part-time workers but Mary but keeps in contact with her loyal local following by selling her products every other week at the North Asheville Farmers Market. You can also spot Mary occasionally at an Ingles "Taste of Local" event since her gluten-free pastries and mixes are on the shelves in several Western NC Ingles stores. 

(Mary on WLOS-TV promoting the Asheville Gluten Free Expo sponsored by Ingles Markets)

I have heard Mary say more than once, "You eat with  your eyes first." meaning how food looks is the very first thing that catches our attention - it's the presentation - even before we smell it - and the appearance of food makes us want to taste it ...and this is certainly true of Dolci Di Maria pastries and desserts. 

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