In a down economy, some of the biggest changes to the state’s dining scene occurred—perhaps surprisingly—at the constantly evolving Christiana Mall, where eating options no longer begin and end at Orange Julius.
J.B. Dawson’s Restaurant & Bar (315 Christiana Mall, Newark, 369-4000, jbdawsons.com) is a local chain that began life as Austin’s Restaurant in 1996 in Reading, Pennsylvania. The new location is the company’s first foray into Delaware, and it opened just in time for holiday wackiness at the mall.
Manager Shannon Gotte describes Dawson’s as upscale-casual with hearty, family-sized portions. “It’s a place where everybody can be comfortable,” she says. “There are booths and lighting that make an intimate spot for a nice glass of wine or a cocktail, and at the same time, it’s a place where a bunch of family or friends could get together to watch a game.”
Dawson’s menu is full of American pub favorites such as burgers, ribs and crab cakes—all made fresh in-house. The slow-roasted baby back ribs are a signature item. They’re part of an all-you-can-eat special on Monday nights for $24.95.
Brio Tuscan Grille (305 Christiana Mall Road, Newark, 368-1448, brioitalian.com), meanwhile, is a boutique chain based in Columbus, Ohio, that certainly ups the mall’s class quotient. The restaurant is appointed beautifully in Old World earth tones with bronze highlights, yawning palm trees and sepia artwork. The eyes are drawn immediately to the silky centerpiece that plunges from the ceiling of the dining room. The Brio menu straddles a line between Tuscan grill and Chicago chophouse. Fresh pastas and grilled steaks and chops are specialties.
A few Wilmington institutions underwent changes, too. Dan Butler’s popular Toscana Kitchen + Bar was reborn as Piccolina Toscana (1412 N. Dupont St., Wilmington, 654-8001, piccolinatoscana.com) in October. After an extensive renovation, Piccolina refocused its menu on flavorful small plates and Italian tapas.
When a group of big guns from Harry’s Hospitality Group—namely, Xavier Teixido, David Leo Banks and Kelly O’Hanlon—purchased Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House and Saloon (14th and Scott streets, Wilmington, 658-4600, harrys-savoy.com/kidshelleens.asp) in September, observers wondered what sort of changes might occur at the established neighborhood spot. One biggie is a renewed attention to fresh ingredients. Seasonal, farm-raised products have beefed up several dishes, especially the Jenny Farm Steakburger, a new signature item. It’s made from choice cuts of grass-fed beef (hence the “steak” in the name) from Green Valley Farms in Unionville, Pennsylvania.
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Michael DiBianca’s Moro (1307 N. Scott St., Wilmington, 777-1800, mororestaurant.net) has been a darling since it opened in 2002, and last year it earned the highest food scores for Delaware in Zagat’s annual ratings—which makes now the perfect time to change everything. Moro has a brand new look and concept. The new menu focuses on rustic, farm-to-table cuisine, including roasted local clams, slow-braised pork belly and pan-fried eggplant on the appetizer side. New entrées include pan-seared red snapper, veal Milanese, fennel-lemon and honey-roasted Lancaster chicken, and more. The best part is new, moderate pricing that puts starters in the $7-$14 range and mains in the mid-20s. Moro also underwent a visual overhaul: A centerpiece antipasti station has been built into a corner of the open kitchen, and deep burgundy carpets have been installed, along with new window treatments, tabletops and light fixtures.
It wasn’t a season reserved for tweaks only. Several new places fired up the stoves for the very first time. The owners of Luca Ristorante and Enoteca (303 Main St., Millsboro, 934-5822, lucaristorante.com) are all about traditional, regional Italian cuisine, including homemade pastas and bread and organic small-batch wines. The room is a circa 1916 former Delaware Trust Bank in downtown Millsboro. The 6-by-10-foot steel vault in the center of the room offers just a taste of the charm. Owners Davide and Christine Jones, along with general manager Paul Cullen, turned the bank into an intimate, Tuscan-tinged retreat with pressed tin ceilings and hardwood floors. The vault houses a single table for chef’s tasting dinners.
Chef Joe Churchman, who last plied his trade in Philly, gives rise to rustic, regional Italian cuisine. “Each dish is from a different region,” Cullen says. “There might be a truffle-mushroom dish from Piedmont, an Abruzzi dish, a Tuscan dish and so on.” Luca also serves family-style Sunday suppers. Cullen helps source certified and organic Italian wines and craft Italian beers.
From the owners of Rasa Sayang Malaysian Cuisine comes Padi (700 Lantana Drive, Hockessin, 239-1800, padirestaurant.com), a new pan-Asian place named for the Malay word for rice fields. Padi’s pan-Asian umbrella allows for maximal creativity and flexibility in the kitchen, which borrows elements from Thai, Japanese and Malaysian traditions. The menu includes dishes such as fried dumplings, chicken breasts stuffed with a melange of veggies, and homemade rice paper stuffed with a delicious mixture of pork, peanuts and more. Then there’s Padi’s secret weapon: sushi from former Utage chef Chihiro Oka. Plain and simple, the man is culinary royalty, having worked side-by-side with his father Yuichiro for 22 years at Delaware’s first sushi restaurant.
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Chef Julio Lazzarini, Food Network star and owner of Orillas Tapas Bar in Wilmington, opened in October his second location on Market Street: Vinoteca 902 (902 N. Market St., Wilmington, 575-9244). Vinoteca mashes together flavors from the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, with splashes of Moroccan, Barcelonan and more.
Dennis Forbes, owner of the venerable Dover fish house Cool Springs opened Restaurant 55 (2461 S. State St., Dover, 535-8102, coolsprings.com) in November, a high-end burger joint gastropub. Christened when Forbes came to the startling realization that he was about to turn 55—“And I should know better,” Forbes jokes—the restaurant specializes in burgers made from Wyoming’s Witt Bros. Market. You’ll also find entrée salads, and honest pub fare like hand-cut fries and potato chips.
Forbes’ daughter Desiree Di’Antonio, who has spent more than 32 years in and around the restaurant business, is a partner and the general manager. Dennis will split time to some degree between 55 and Cool Springs. It’ll be a relatively short commute—55 and Cool Springs share a diminutive shopping center just southeast of Dover. “Dover is pretty excited,” he says. “We see it as an alternative [to Cool Springs].” Restaurant 55 isn’t as seafood-centric as Cool Springs, but counts salmon burgers and tuna burgers among its upscale burger creations. A brand new 24-seat bar area serves 12 craft-brewed beers (plus root beer from Dover’s Fordham Brewery). Entrées fall in the $10-$13 range.
Some restaurants, glad to be around following tragedy, are counting their blessings. Just six months removed from a devastating electrical fire that wreaked havoc on most of its interior, the 32-year-old La Casa Pasta (120 Four Seasons Parkway, Newark, 738-9935, martuscelliandsons.com) is finally reborn. And not just reborn, but beautifully revamped. Giuseppe and Anna Martuscelli’s tribute to coastal Italian cuisine is better than ever. According to son and partner Gianmarco Martuscelli, chef Guiseppe is back to work on handmade pastas, only now patrons can take advantage of slimmer and affordable half-portions on dishes such as dolce vita with handmade fettucelle, filet mignon tips, sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and Marsala cream. The kitchen has also rediscovered its brick pizza oven, which it uses to make crispy individual-sized pies. The new interior is a comfy-upscale diversion from the old Casa, with custom-made wood tables and sections for private dining.