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Delaware Dining: A Review of Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities Italian Restaurant on Lincoln Street in Little Italy in Wilmington

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The red wine fettuccine entrée swims with crab meat, mussels, shrimp, garlic and noodles (hand-cut by chef Luigi Vitrone) in a tomato-splashed wine sauce. photograph by Thom ThompsonAt a glance

Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities
415 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington
656-9822 ljv-pastabilities.com
Prices Appetizers $6.95-$10-95, pasta $13.95-$23.95, entrées $20.95-$26.95
Recommended Dishes Veal scallopini saltimbocca, linguini with lobster sauce, red wine fettuccine, cheese ravioli

 

 

 

Last spring I joined with a few other local food nerds and community leaders at the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington to judge the official Taste of Little Italy ravioli cook-off.

Under the watchful stare of the audience, and the slightly more menacing stares of the chefs, we chewed quizzically and drew in the aromas.

But awarding the best ravioli in Little Italy was not to be taken lightly. This task required a stringent blind taste-test policy. Though as we pored over the dozen or so contest entries from the neighborhood’s many fine restaurants, we judges couldn’t help ourselves. The guessing game began: Which restaurant brought which ravioli?

Server Binta Fadiga presents a dessert tray packed with homemade goodies to Bill King and Awa Fadiga. photograph by Thom ThompsonSome were obvious. The fried wonton ravioli with hot and sour dipping sauce? Nice, Bangkok House. And who else but the folks at Walter’s Steakhouse could’ve prepared the tasty braised beef ravioli with port demi-glace?

The next plate slid under our noses. The judges met eyes and gave knowing nods. Steaming on the plate were tender, perfectly al dente dumplings, smothered simply in crushed tomatoes and basil, just as light and fresh-tasting as sun-warmed backyard produce.

These ravioli were simpler than the rest—more traditional. But the simple ingredients and instinctive technique created the ideal picture: This ravioli tasted exactly how ravioli should taste.

These belonged to Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities. We all knew it. Luigi won.

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Vitrone prepares pasta dough. photograph by Thom ThompsonThere’s a certain degree of assurance and comfort when it comes to Vitrone’s food, and the same goes for his restaurant—the small converted row house on Lincoln Street that he opened in 1988. Vitrone himself is an indelible presence in this neighborhood. So, too, is his food. That’s what makes his particular brand of neighborhood Italian comfort food so, well, comforting.

The fact that Vitrone is back and cooking is comforting in itself.

Two years ago, Vitrone collapsed in his kitchen and spent the next several months clinging to life at St. Francis Hospital. He fell into a coma, and was read his last rites by a priest three times. Pastabilities stood shuttered for nine months.

Vitrone persevered. And his restaurant is now a year into its rebirth, back to providing Little Italy with homemade pastas and sauces in one of the block’s more legendary dining rooms.

Inside Pastabilities is a starlit ceiling. The menus are glued onto scrapbook paper. The eggplant-colored trim complements the impenetrable thicket of stuff on the walls: license plates, aprons, magnets, and every other manner of gift shop fodder. The sultry eyes of Norma Jean peer from several posters.

Like the decor, Vitrone’s food is awesomely un-chic. Entrées that burst from the hotdog cart-sized kitchen are big, lusty things dripping with rich sauces and melted cheese. They are flavor-saturated fireworks displays mixed with garlic and a hug from your Nonna Sophia.

Consider the chicken a la Bobby O’Neill. Named for a beloved regular, the dish smothers chicken breast in ricotta, fontina and mascarpone cheeses, prosciutto di parma, eggplant, and bolognese sauce. It would be overkill if it wasn’t too much of a good thing.

The same can be said of Vitrone’s red wine fettuccine, which married a dense, tomato-splashed wine sauce and fat, serpentine noodles (hand-cut by Luigi, of course), tie-died a gentle purple from soaking it all in. Crab meat, mussels and shrimp and thick hunks of garlic also received a rich coating of flavor.

The chef is still making some of the town’s best veal saltimbocca. His tender wraps of veal carried a balanced, subdued sage essence that played against salty prosciutto rolled up inside, while a rich, buttery demi-glace ran down the surface.

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Vitrone reads the Italian Tribune in front of his Lincoln Street restaurant, where many neighborhood discussions take place. photograph by Thom ThompsonLuigi can also display whimsy as a chef, although his dishes occasionally mirrored the hodgepodge of his walls. On one visit, a house salad arrived topped with a grab-bag of ingredients that included crispy, dehydrated green beans and beet slices, orange wedges, diced red cabbage, and inedible, raw fennel bulbs. Another night, he added grapefruit and homemade blocks of mozzarella, the former absolutely eviscerating the latter’s delicate flavors. Pasta fagioli arrived sans navy beans or pasta, but rather with kidney beans and potato.

But you don’t go to Pastabilities for the salads.

You go for cavateli in meat sauce, decadent linguine in lobster and house-cured Abruzzese sausage. You go for the stuffed pepperoni and salted ricotta on your plate of cold antipasto, and the stodgy yet delicious stuffed mushroom caps loaded with crab and shrimp meat, sautéed veggies and bread crumbs.

And don’t look for any of that to change anytime soon. Pastabilities’ legacy is cemented. But what about the next generation of diners? With his menu that touts a recipe proudly “As seen in Gourmet Magazine, 1980,” plus his adjacent Old Skool Antiques shop, Vitrone is probably not concerned.

He’s been given a second chance at life, and as long as Luigi is rolling his ravioli, Sinatra is playing over the speakers, and the glass tabletops reflect the starry ceiling above, Pastabilities deserves a second look.
 

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