While COVID-19 closed the doors of many businesses in Evanston, and the hope for a new chapter has ushered in new coffee shops, zero-waste stores and bars, one place in Evanston has remained constant – Trattoria Demi.
On Sherman Avenue you’ll find the Italian restaurant that has been in Evanston for almost 30 years. Trattoria Demi began in 1993 all because Denise Sieja, the owner and co-founder, loves Italian food.
Sieja would go to Trattoria Peppino in Elmwood Park, a place that offers authentic Italian cuisine. But, Sieja wondered, what if she could have her own little slice of Italy in Evanston? Through mutual friends, Sieja and her boyfriend at the time started planning and became part of a now dissolved restaurant group. Eventually they expanded Trattoria Peppino to Evanston.
At first, they were counter-service, but guests were not interested because they wanted to sit down and enjoy their meals. But since the peak of the pandemic, Sieja says, many guests are choosing pick-up or delivery.
In the almost three decades since Trattoria Demi has existed, Sieja said COVID-19 posed the biggest threat by far to the business closing.
“It was such an unknown,” she said. “We didn’t know the extent and to say scary is just an understatement. I support my family through that restaurant, I wait tables – I am a worker, not just an owner. I am hands-on in every way possible.”
Sieja said Trattoria Demi was lucky. Evanstonians rallied around the restaurant and they only had to let two part-time dishwashers go.
With or without COVID-19, being a woman-owned business has its obstacles. Because Sieja is on the floor wearing an apron, she says she is often mistaken for a waitress. There have been instances where salespeople or customers ask to speak to the manager, and when she says they can speak to her, they reiterate no, it must be the manager.
“They think obviously I am just a waiter, I couldn’t be the owner,” she said. “I know I get treated and spoken to in a way that people wouldn’t dare to with a man.”
Sieja said the first emotion she feels when this dismissive behavior occurs is anger – but not with the particular situation, frustration with the system itself. She said she notices that with many women in power, a lack of respect comes with the territory.
“It’s what we deal with, but I wish it wasn’t true,” she said. “It is unfortunately the climate we live in.”
Although the pandemic is still prevalent, Sieja believes that Evanston worked to preserve Trattoria Demi and will continue to do so.
“They have let us thrive through two recessions and a pandemic,” she said. “My gratitude is enormous, truly, I can’t say that enough. Without Evanston and my loyal staff, I would not be here. I would not have a business anymore.”
Visit Trattoria Demi’s website for reservations, menu, location and hours.