In 1978, Giuseppe and Anna Martuscelli watched a $20,000 investment slip down the drain. Giuseppe, an Italian immigrant, had opened a restaurant in Glasgow with partners. But they’d pulled out, and business was slow. Then restaurant critic Otto Dekom came to dine. In his News Journal column, he praised the antipasto, lasagna, mussels fra diavolo and zabaglione.
Forty-five years later, La Casa Pasta is the jewel of the Martuscelli Restaurant Group, which also includes Klondike Kate’s Restaurant & Bar in Newark and the Chesapeake Inn. The restaurant has expanded and renovated multiple times, including a recent bar and banquet room redo.
The iconic establishment’s longevity reflects Delaware’s love affair with Italian restaurants in all price ranges. The majority have an Italian American influence.
“The soul of Italian food connects red-gravy restaurants to even the most elegant and formal establishments,” agrees Jeff Matyger, corporate chef of Platinum Dining Group, which owns Capers & Lemons and Taverna. “We still offer chicken piccata and veal saltimbocca. We just show a slightly different interpretation.”
Indeed, each Italian restaurant has its own identity and history.
Before the mid-20th century, Italian cuisine in America was limited to immigrants’ kitchens. Slow-cooked meat, sauces and pasta helped stretch a dollar, says John Mariani, author of How Italian Food Conquered the World. Italian food was considered inexpensive “peasant food,” he says.
Not every immigrant cooked like a nonna, and some saw an opportunity. In 1940, for instance, Tresilla Robino opened Mrs. Robino’s Italian Restaurant in her basement. She later moved to Union Street in Wilmington’s Little Italy.
Today, her great-granddaughter Andrea Minuti Wakefield oversees the homey restaurant, where classics include beef braciole, a slow-cooked roll of steak and Parmesan cheese topped with sauce; veal spezzato; and chicken Josephine with mushrooms and Alfredo sauce, a tribute to Josephine Minuti, Robino’s daughter.
520 N. Union St., Wilmington; 652-9223; mrsrobinos.com
After World War II, GIs hungered for Italian dishes, and Massimo Marconi opened Marconi’s on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington. Since 1985, the location has been home to Ristorante Attilio, famous for fried smelts, string beans and potatoes, sundried peppers, and greens over spaghetti.
1900 Lancaster Ave., Wilmington; 428-0909; ristoranteattilio.com
The years haven’t dimmed Delawareans’ love for Italian American dishes. Just ask Donnie Scalessa, whose 40 Acres restaurant, Scalessa’s, is framed as an “old-school Italian kitchen,” he says. The entrepreneur started his first sub shop when he was 19 years old and eventually owned Café Scalessa’s, a full-service restaurant in Wawaset with a wise-guy theme. “We killed it back then,” he says.
Scalessa’s smaller South Philly–influenced operation reflects his skill with sandwiches—he helped popularize the chicken cheesesteak—and meatballs, which you can get on a salad. Other unique dishes include sausage, beans, escarole and a chicken cutlet in red-pepper gravy.
1836 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington; 656-1362; scalessas.com
A rich heritage
It’s not unusual for chefs to pay homage to their history. For instance, Sergio Pellegrino at Café Mezzanotte makes Bolognese using his father’s 50-year-old recipe. Pellegrino worked in hotels along the Italian coast, and his branzino, a European sea bass, attracts customers from as far as New York, who maintain that his preparation is the best.
Coastal Italy often takes a lighter approach to cuisine. Pellegrino, who opened his restaurant 20 years ago, dresses breaded bone-in pork chop with arugula, diced tomatoes and lemon. Thinly sliced carpaccio is accented by truffle oil, fresh lemon juice and tart capers. You’ll find familiar Italian dishes at Pellegrino’s other restaurant, Gallucio’s.
11th and Tatnall streets, Wilmington; 658-7050; cafemezzanotte.net
Tired of trekking from Bethany to New York to buy the bread and cured meat of his youth, Bob Ciprietti opened Touch of Italy to reflect his Bronx heritage, according to friend and food writer Bob Yesbek. The house specialty is chicken Parmesan, an American creation that became a menu fixture in the 1950s.
101 Second St., Lewes, 827-2730; 19724 Coastal Highway, Rehoboth, 227-3900; touchofitaly.com
At Pastabilities in Wilmington’s Little Italy, Brooklyn native Luigi Vitrone features “Brooklyn specials,” including eggplant rollatini, extra-large shrimp steamed in tomatoes and spices, and chicken breast with fontina cheese and tomato sauce. The chef, who opened the eatery in 1988, greets customers, who must walk through the kitchen to reach the dining room.
415 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington; 656-9822
A piece of the pie
Several Italian restaurants started as sub-and-pizza shops. Consider Roma Italian Ristorante in Dover, which opened as a pizzeria in 1973. Founder Giuseppe Garramone, a native of southern Italy, expanded. Today, Joseph Garramone Jr. runs the show. Don’t miss the house-pulled mozzarella.
3 President Drive, Dover; 678-1041; romadover.com
Vincenza & Margherita (V&M) Italian American Bistro is known for its veal entrées, but pizza is the Carrieri–Russo family’s legacy product. They once had a pizza place in the Christiana Mall food court. Neapolitan and Sicilian pizzas are a primary draw.
1717 Marsh Road, Wilmington; 479-7999; vmbistro.com
DiFebo’s opened in Bethany Beach in 1989 as a 40-seat deli/café serving subs, steaks and pasta inspired by the family feasts in Wilmington. Now, there are two locations, plus a Bethany Beach market with to-go items, gourmet goods and gifts. Bob DiFebo’s meatballs are in high demand, as is the family recipe for sweet ravioli made with sweet ricotta cheese. However, the menu also might feature short ribs braised in chianti, wild boar ragù, and tordelli packed with short rib, Swiss chard and stracciatella cheese in a Chianti-butter broth.
789 Garfield Parkway, Bethany Beach, 539-4550; 12 N. First St., Rehoboth Beach, 226-4550; difebos.com
La Casa Pasta still offers Neapolitan pizza and traditional Italian American dishes, including a Bolognese that Gianmarco Martuscelli could never take off the menu without a customer riot.
120 Four Seasons Parkway, Newark; 738-9935; lacasapasta.com
As the Mediterranean diet took hold in the 1990s, customers discovered Italy’s grains, beans, olive oils, pasta and grilled foods. Price points climbed in restaurants featuring top-shelf imported and local products.
Dan Butler, for instance, worked at Tiberio in Washington, D.C., one of the city’s most expensive restaurants. In 1991, he opened Griglia Toscana in Trolley Square. Now known as Piccolina Toscana, the Trolley Square restaurant was one of the first with a brick oven for pizzas and half a chicken. Forget a side of spaghetti. The offerings include Brussels sprouts with bacon, Swiss chard with garlic, and baked eggplant.
1412 N. Dupont St., Wilmington; 654-8001; piccolinatoscana.com
The term “rustic” entered the culinary lexicon to refer to such dishes as grilled artichokes and lemon with Parmesan and spicy shrimp with squash and orzo at Taverna.
121 E. Main St., Newark, 444-4334; 3549 Silverside Road, Wilmington, 384-8552; tavernapdg.com
At Lupo Italian Kitchen, sautéed artichoke hearts glisten with lemon, and grilled octopus comes with a white-bean salad and a roasted red pepper aioli.
247 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 226-2240; lupoitaliankitchen.com
Perhaps no restaurant pushes the Mediterranean envelope like Bardea Food & Drink in downtown Wilmington. Antimo DiMeo’s spaghetti comes with cod cheeks, and the burrata is a riff on a Pop-Tart. Sure, there are Nonna’s meatballs, but they come with Italian cow’s milk cheese and basil gremolata.
620 N. Market St., Wilmington; 426-2069; bardeawilmington.com
Italy meets Delmarva
Regardless of the cuisine, the First State loves its seafood. Most Italian restaurants will offer shrimp, mussels and clams, but increasingly, patrons want a range of seaworthy options. Salmon, a cold-water fish, swims on most menus, including at Sazio.
The coastal restaurant is part of the Big Fish Restaurant Group, and selections also include halibut, day boat scallops and pasta.
32 Lake Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 226-1160; saziorehoboth.com
And while Tuscany inspires Benvenuto’s menu, the jumbo lump crabcakes and stuffed lobster tails are rave-worthy. You can always pair it with chicken Parmesan or frutti di mare (seafood over linguini). On the Delmarva Peninsula, that’s Italian!
249 NE Front St., Milford; 265-2652; benvenuto-restaurant.com