504 Greenhill Ave., Wilmington
Salads and antipasti $8.95-$15.95
Meatballs with Sunday gravy, gnocchi, butter cake
Café Scalessa, from its comfy pocket along Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington, offers sheer Italian-American escapism.
Of the 6,000 Google search results for Scalessa’s, more than 3,000 contain the word “Sinatra.” Imposing owner Don Scalessa furnishes his guests with his oeuvre of wiseguy motif. There are the notations on the menu—“our pastas are cooked to order, capish?” And my favorite: “Leave the gun, take the butter cake.” Dean Martin is heard on the house speakers. There are chianti-colored walls. There are mobster movies playing on three TV screens on endless loops.
Since its inception in 2002, the tiny café had built an impressive following on the back of its old-school Italian charm. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Chef Don’s food—predictable but reliable—was culled from family recipes: slow-cooked meats, bubbling and building tenderness in pots of Sunday gravy, Italian long hot peppers blistering in hot olive oil. The nightlife sizzled, thanks to a Sinatra-heavy music program and DJ-fueled dance parties.
But in 2011, Scalessa suddenly sold his restaurant. Restaurateur Andy Watt moved in and opened Cafe DeVita in the Wawaset Plaza spot, while Scalessa plotted reinventing Scalessa’s in a new location. One year later, with DeVita already a memory, Scalessa reclaimed his former spot. Instead of a reinvention, he subtly improved the space with fresh paint, light fixtures and a better sound system. Scalessa’s famous disco ball and Don’s recipes happily remain.
So the New Scalessa’s is ostensibly the Old Scalessa’s, which is as good as neighborhood Italian gets in this part of Delaware. Wilmington loves its ’70s-style Italian, be it from Mrs. Robino’s or Pastabilities. And while no one is going to win a James Beard Award with eggplant parm and pasta fagioli, that’s not really the point.
If you don’t have ricotta coursing through your veins (and who doesn’t at least have a little?) Scalessa’s can seem heavy-handed. And there are, in fact, several scenes from “The Godfather” that I don’t necessarily want to watch while eating. But if anything, Scalessa’s is honest. Its mild case of kitsch can be blocked out by great food prepared slowly and meticulously by Don himself.
Like any compelling family-based enterprise (the Corleones and the Sopranos included), Scalessa’s has its imperfections that range from the benign to the perplexing. But Don nails the important stuff. What would an old-school Italian joint be without great spaghetti and meatballs? Finely ground and slowly simmered, Scalessa’s fist-sized meatballs are melt-apart tender and among the best around.
His Sunday gravy is no simple colloquialism, but lava-thick—rich, potent and flavorful. Threads of braised pork and castaway hunks of meatballs swish around through rough-chopped nuggets of tomato and garlic. Poured over perfectly toothsome al dente linguini, the gravy rules its subjects with a firm hand and tomato-y brio.
Pastas at Scalessa’s hit the same strong notes, particularly the homemade gnocchi, with its expertly grained texture and composition.
arshmallow soft with ample bite, the nuggets were not starchy or doughy like so many imitators. One night the chef plunged them into buttery blush sauce swimming with herbs, frizzled garlic slices and tomato chunks. Colossal shrimp, fleshy as lobster tails, soaked everything in.
When it comes to calamari fritti, meanwhile, Scalessa takes a welcomed detour. Eschewing the standard and staid dipping sauce, he tosses his impeccably crispy, gently seasoned squid in flash-fried spinach leaves and grated Parmesan, which flaked, melted and behaved as the perfect foil to the crunchy calamari. Another preparation drenched the squid in robust red pepper gravy, enameling the morsels in a deep, peppery coat.
It’s hard not to at least mention Scalessa’s excellent tiramisu, which excels at being light and buoyant, yet decadent. But this is butter cake territory, and other desserts simply pay respect. The Scalessa’s butter cake is worth its weight in concrete blocks. Here, on a plate dusted in powdered sugar, eggs, milk, granulated sugar—and plenty of butter—exist in perfect harmony. Crackly, chewy and smooth, a slice hits the same textural pleasure zones of a chocolate chip cookie, and melts apart on the tongue.
On busy nights, which is most nights, since Scalessa’s serves dinner from Wednesdays through Saturdays, the restaurant can be chaotic. In its small dining space, tables feel cramped, and are typically serviced by just one or two waiters who are forced to squeeze between a dozen tables, occasionally taking a slightly-jarring breather on any unoccupied seats. Between the open kitchen (which shares space with the dining room), loud music and Joe Pesci blowing his gasket on three screens, there were moments of agita.
Other times, small blunders in preparation—like an overly buttery Marsala sauce, or a pale, watery tomato that snugged up against homemade mozzarella—hit sour notes. Without the assistance of sugar from riper fruit, the tomatoes failed to accentuate Scalessa’s otherwise excellent cheese. Firm, and gently salted, the mozzarella looked pale and nondescript.
Which was nothing compared to Scalessa’s iron skillet mussels. Without a sauce or a dressing, the mussels’ fishy liqueur smoldered on the surface of a cast-iron skillet, and created a burnt layer of crust that stuck to shells and imparted an unpleasant flavor.
But Scalessa’s imperfections, mobster mania and terrific homespun food blend together for a unique Wilmington experience. At the center of it all is the muscular ringleader, caring for regulars like family. When diners walk through the door, they, indeed, become family.
As we left the restaurant one night, Scalessa spun around to say: “Come back on Saturday—we have two Frank Sinatra singers.” I waited around an extra beat, awkwardly, for a “capish” that never came.