Salvatore Scarlata, chef and owner of Vidalia, displays mushrooms stuffed with sausage, spinach, sweet onion and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Staff photo by Chris Sturgis.
Salvatore Scarlata, chef and owner of Vidalia, displays mushrooms stuffed with sausage, spinach, sweet onion and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Staff photo by Chris Sturgis.

By Chris Sturgis

Cozy is how Salvatore Scarlata wants his patrons to feel at his restaurant, Vidalia. Cozy and sweet, just like its namesake onion.

That vegetable, with its uncommon, trademark-protected sweetness, is a metaphor for the intimate dining experience as well as a star ingredient of the soup and appetizer.

Scarlata, 30, has been preparing to open this Lawrenceville eatery for his entire life. Born in Sicily, but raised in the northern city of Liguria, he learned both simplicity of method and emphasis on fresh produce and grilled meats of southern Italian cooking. At the same time, he has mastered the more layered flavors of the butter-based sauces of northern cooking.

He came to the United States with his parents when he was 10. He refined his skills at Tre Piani in Princeton and La Stalla Ristorante in Newtown, Pa.

In October 2005, he went into business for himself. He purchased a 10-year-old restaurant that was foundering, despite a catchy name, Vidalia.

“I had a strong feeling about the name. It’s the sweetest onion you can get. It’s also an Italian-sounding name,” he said. After about three months of hard work, he could see the place was developing a clientele.

There is nothing Italian about the Vidalia onion, which is native to Vidalia, Ga. However, it’s a memorable onion with its own marketing campaign, the official onion of the State of Georgia. But what Scarlata sees in them is an edible metaphor for something special, sweet and self-contained.

Vidalia’s dining room has only 10 tables. The flavor of the onion is featured in soup with crostini bread and melted cheeses or baked into a loaf with vegetables and garlic. When Vidalia onions are out of season, Scarlata uses other sweet onions in their place.

Scarlata said he’s pleased with how far his restaurant has come in a little more than two years. He sells his signature sauce at the nearby Lawrence Farmers Market. Although Vidalia’s kitchen and dining room are small, Scarlata can cater banquets off site for up to 200 with white-glove service.

Nearby corporate campuses, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merrill Lynch and Stark and Stark regularly order dinners through the restaurant’s Web site, where a gourmet meal can be ordered over New Jersey Takeoutpoint.com The minimum charge for an online order to be delivered locally is $100. Vidalia does not sell wine, but customers may bring their own bottles, Scarlata said.

He lives in Lawrenceville with his wife, Eva, and their son, Alessandro, and daughter, Mia Valentina. Scarlata’s parents have come to America and are also working in the restaurant business. With his 80-hour workweeks, however, he finds it difficult to fit in a return trip to Italy.

“Since we had the second child, even a vacation is tough,” he said. “It’s given me a great living. I can’t complain.”

Vidalia is located at 21 Phillips Ave., Lawrenceville. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Telephone: (609) 896-4444. On the Web: eatatvidalia.com.