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Azzurro Italian Oven + Bar Takes a Fresh, Elegant Approach to Italian Cuisine

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Since 2007, several restaurant concepts have occupied the former Chez La Mer location in downtown Rehoboth Beach. Many longtime visitors, however, still refer to the site as “the old Chez La Mer,” undoubtedly because the French restaurant occupied the Second Street and Wilmington Avenue location for nearly 30 years.

But the latest occupant, Azzurro Italian Oven + Bar, just might have the chops to claim the space anew in regular diners’ minds.

For one, owners Tonya and Francesco Agostino have transformed the décor to make it their own. In the past, the 19th-century building felt dark and cramped. But no longer: Light materials—including granite, white-washed siding, textured stone tiles and driftwood-colored tabletops—make a dramatic difference.

 

Photos courtesy of Azzurro Italian Oven + Bar

 

For another, Francesco—who was born in northern Italy—brings a refined European sensibility to the menu. So don’t expect heavy Italian-American pasta dishes covered in red sauce and gooey cheese: Many dishes are simply kissed with lemon and good balsamic vinegar. Flavors are often clean and bright.

Fans of the second-floor deck will be happy to know it’s still in play. It’s an excellent place for a refreshing tomato-and-mozzarella salad, a glass of wine and one of Francesco’s pizzas.

 

From left: Grilled yellowfin tuna; European sea bass.//Photos by Pam George

 

But on a recent visit, we opted to dine inside. To start, we shared ruby-red, paper-thin slices of dry-aged beef served with shaved Parmesan-Reggiano, a Modena balsamic glaze and peppery arugula with curls of Parmesan (a staple).

For the main course, I couldn’t resist the whole branzino. Baked in a salt crust, the European sea bass came dressed with a sauce made of lemon, caramelized shallot, extra-virgin olive oil, cherry tomatoes and parsley.

My husband had the grilled yellowfin tuna, which was fanned across a bed of arugula and decorated with balsamic curlicues. Another dining partner tucked into the Bolognese, a tempting tangle of tagliatelle and slow-cooked beef, pork and San Marzano tomatoes. And a fourth guest ordered a neat patty of risotto featuring tendrils of zucchini and sweet shrimp in a white wine sauce.

The service was attentive to the point that our waiter chased me down the sidewalk afterward to deliver the sweater I’d left on my chair.

Tonya and Francesco have scarcely had time to breathe since they opened in May. Business has been brisk, and despite the resort-wide labor shortage, they soldiered through.

And while fall should be more relaxed, the Agostinos likely won’t take time off anytime soon. It’s the second season, after all, and diners are continuously discovering this Italian gem in the city’s treasured building.

 

Azzurro Italian Oven + Bar
210 Second St., Rehoboth Beach • 212-2409

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