Capers & Lemons
301 Little Falls Drive, Wilmington, 256-0524
Wood stone pizzas $11-$14
Fried polenta sandwich, any wood stone pizza, spinach-ricotta agnolotti, tiramisu
What is a caper, anyway? I overheard more than a few diners hazard an explanation:
“Well, it’s sort of an herb that grows underground.”
“Oh, they’re just tiny green olives.”
“They’re a thing that goes with lemons.”
By now, the customers at Capers & Lemons have figured it out. They had to, considering the Wilmington restaurant, in its first few months of service, was an immediate smash hit.
Carl Georigi, with the ownership group that brought us Dome Restaurant in Hockessin and Eclipse Bistro in Wilmington, opened Capers & Lemons in February. The restaurant sits at the entrance of a business park on Centerville Road, just outside Hockessin, which is a bit of a strange location, but it clearly doesn’t deter customers. Several managers used the term “overwhelming” when recounting the restaurant’s buzz. And the hype was still strong well into June, when a wait for dinner on a weeknight was nearly an hour.
Businesses such as Invista, Agilent Technologies, Children of America and Artisan’s Bank share the park with C&L, which provides a built-in customer base, but the restaurant is also within easy striking distance of Greenville, Kirkwood Highway, downtown Wilmington and Hockessin. The resulting confluence of customers appears diverse—young first-daters, families with kids, business types and empty nesters, who seemed to flood the place at lunchtime.
Through all its initial popularity, Capers & Lemons is considerably more understated when compared to the likes of Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville and the Stone Balloon Winehouse in Newark—two ambitious restaurants that opened with great fanfare around the same time. And perhaps that’s why people have found C&L so appealing.
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Georigi and chef Michael O’Hare (who you will remember as the original chef-owner of Caffé Bellissimo in Wilmington, then head of Roux 3 Restaurant in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania) aim for simple food that is approachable, inviting and uncomplicated. Certainly, the concept of Italian food can encompass a broad variety, and O’Hare and Georigi were wise in dialing it back a tad. Where Roux 3 was stylish and ambitious, the focus at C&L is quality, everyday ingredients, usually no more than five or six per dish, that speak clearly and harmoniously on the plate.
That’s not to say the Capers & Lemons menu isn’t sophisticated. You usually won’t find amatriciana, calamarata or agnolotti on the menus of your neighborhood ravioli-and-meatballs, red-checkered-tablecloth Italian joints. At Capers, there’s plenty.
Accessibility also ties into the decor, handled by Georigi’s wife and business partner, Lisa. (Carl and Lisa equals Capers & Lemons? Hmmm.) The main dining area is appointed with prints and oversized vases, and when the lights dimmed at 6:40 p.m., it gave us a chance to notice the huge earth-toned hanging lamps, shaped into concentric rings. (Picture chandeliers made from whiskey barrels, but cooler.) The show-stopping wine bottle fountain at the entrance has already worked its way into local lore. It’s probably the glitziest of C&L’s decorations.
I was enchanted from the get-go. On my first visit to Capers during a cold and rainy night, we were seated directly in front of the pizza station. Not only was it warming and delicious to smell, I felt like I was riding shotgun. Whatever warm and crispy thing came out of that oven, I had to try.
Out first from the wood stone station (that’s Wood Stone, not wood fire, as in the line of commercial cooking equipment, though this one is gas-powered) came a flatbread topped with caramelized, balsamic-infused onions, roasted red peppers, pesto and house-made mozzarella. The thin, crispy crust was delicious. There wasn’t a touch of bitterness or brittleness. The mozzarella is worth mentioning because Georigi and O’Hare learned the secrets of making it directly from Lou DiPalo, third-generation owner of DiPalo Fine Foods, a revered Italian market in Manhattan.
Next was the basilica pizza, with more pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and Kalamata olives. The pie—which, at $14, is about the same price as a large from Papa John’s—was tangy and light, with lemony accents from the goat cheese getting extra pop from the briny olives.
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The unique fried polenta sandwich resembled an artful mozzarella stick. It even tasted a bit like one until the layers of creamy polenta began to spread across the palate. There’s no bread in the sandwich, only layers of fontina cheese, spinach, marinara sauce and polenta. The textural play of crispy outside and creamy inside worked, and it got better toward the center.
Capers & Lemons also does handmade pasta. Agnolotti filled with spinach and ricotta was my first choice. The agnolotti itself, sort of a rustic cousin of ravioli, had a firm al dente bite and fresh flavor. I tried a few other shapes, namely linguine in the puttanesca) and capellini (in the scampi), and they shared the same wonderful traits. The agnolotti was dressed in a sweet mushroom sauce that left me wanting more.
If nothing else, C&L could hang its hat on great gourmet pizza and pasta, but there’s so much more.
Braciole lived up to the hype. The hand-rolled beef cutlet arrived fork tender atop a bed of polenta. The tomato-based braising liquid, given sweetness and body from chunks of carrot, revealed the time and care that went into the dish.
Chicken picatta—a pivotal dish, considering its main flavors come from capers and lemons—was mostly successful. The chicken breast was as tender as chicken gets, and the sauce was solid. The accompanying mashed potatoes seemed in need of garlic and were slightly undercooked, however. I’d have preferred pasta as a side.
Rare disappointments with the food can usually be explained by the kitchen’s dedication to simplicity. Scampi Romano and pasta fagioli were perfectly fine, but seemed a bit boring next to the deeper flavors of braciole and other dishes. The Romano-crusted chicken—a breaded chicken cutlet aside linguine in blush sauce—was a letdown. Bruschetta, made simply with diced tomatoes, onion and sweet basil, was delicious, but it arrived with crostini on the side, some assembly required. Ever tried wrangling diced tomatoes with a fork? It’s like eating peas with a knife.
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A great number of people are going to fall in love with chef O’Hare’s tiramisu, if they haven’t already. The dessert, which the kitchen makes each morning, is disarmingly light and addictive—not soggy, not too sweet. A manager told me O’Hare dips the traditional ladyfingers into espresso for a millisecond in order to preserve their texture. They blended perfectly with creamy mascarpone, whipped cream and shaved chocolate.
To distill things: Even if you don’t think you like tiramisu, get the tiramisu. For the love of Luciano Pavarotti, get the tiramisu. It’s that good. It will become a boon in Capers & Lemons’ catering venture, simply because the temptation to purchase an entire pan of it is too strong to ignore.
I got that feeling a lot at Capers & Lemons. Three or four courses and several glasses of wine is normally enough to send me to the couch, but I could’ve eaten these light and flavorful offerings until they closed the place. I’m sure the waitstaff or front of house, which was courteous and well-trained, would’ve called me a cab.
Georigi and O’Hare care about authenticity. They care about giving customers a warm environment to enjoy fresh, unfussy food that feels like it was prepared by a team of little old Italian grandmas. Clearly they’ve succeeded.
I can’t recall the last time my Italian grandmother took semolina in hand to crank out some cavatelli, but even she would stay for seconds of tiramisu.
Page 5: Livin’ la Vita Nova | UD students run the show at one of the area’s best restaurants.
UD students run the show at one of the area’s best restaurants.
Get a good look at the youthful server portioning out an intermezzo of homemade sorbet at Vita Nova, the University of Delaware’s student-run restaurant. He might turn out to be the next Stephen Starr, Georges Perrier or Matt Haley.
Vita Nova (17 W. Main St., Newark, 831-0500), which opens its doors this month for the semester, is part training ground for UD’s Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management students and part fully functioning upscale restaurant inside the Trabant Student Center in the heart of campus.
Through a combo of lecture series, expert training and on-the-job schooling, students learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant. They rotate through 17 different positions during the semester, from prep cook to server to manager and back again, learning the ropes of inventory, kitchen basics, service, management and business.
But this isn’t some institutional, second-rate operation. The kitchen creates its signature crème brûlée and sumptuous crab cakes, while in the dining room, classic Caesar salad is prepared tableside as a team of students circulates with a basket of selected wines from the state-of-the-art, redwood-paneled Vinotek. Mushrooms from Kennett Square are used in dishes, and dairy products from the UD’s agricultural studies barn is used to make ice cream.
It’s also a bargain. Buffet-style lunch at Vita Nova costs $14.95. A four-course dinner ranges from $26 to $39. “People are pleasantly surprised,” says Julie Fagan, director of restaurant operations, and one of only four full-time faculty members who work and teach at Vita Nova. “Most of the guests really enjoy the interaction, getting a chance to talk to the students.” —Matt Amis
Page 6: Hoagie’s Heroes | A Philly sandwich maker hopes to stake a claim on the Delaware sub set.
A Philly sandwich maker hopes to stake a claim on the Delaware sub set.
Watch out, sandwich barons of Delaware. You’ve got company. And it’s packin’ prosciutto with lots of addy-tude.
There are now four locations of Primo Hoagies in Delaware, the latest in Bear. The chain, which began in South Philadelphia, now owns 53 locations in the region.
Mike Aruanno, who owns a Primo in Newark, is director of franchising. Primo, he says, is ready to grab Delaware by the cappicola.
Primo already has a big cheerleader in the UD football team, which devours about 120 Italian, turkey, and ham and cheese hoagies during pre-road trip lunches.
“I’m a huge fan of Primo Hoagies, for a lot of reasons—great service, and the rolls are unbelievable,” says UD director of football operations Jerry Oravitz.
Famous for its high-quality deli meats from Thumann’s, Primo has reeled in celebrity fans such as Bill Cosby and Flyers great Keith Primeau with authentic Italian touches such as prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and broccoli rabe.
“We’re like a cult thing,” Aruanno says. “If you stand in one of our stores for a few minutes, somebody would start going off unsolicited about our product. Where else does that happen? People actually babble about our product.”
In Delaware, Primo will compete with icons Capriotti’s and Casapulla’s, both of which have fiercely loyal customers. That makes Delaware a tough market to crack.
“We’ve got to get people to understand it’s a different product,” Aruanno says. “Capriotti’s and Casapulla’s are a comfort food to people here, and we’re that to Philly. So I think there’s room for all of us.”
Just don’t walk into Primo and order a sub. Or a grinder, hero, zeppelin, torpedo or cosmo, for that matter. “In Delaware, I tease people, ‘If you want a sub, go down the street,’” says Aruanno, who lives in Middletown. “If you want a hoagie, come to us. It’s a Philly thing.” —Matt Amis
Page 7: Ahhhhhhh… | Summer may end this month, but that doesn’t mean the heat has gone away. When your tongue needs some coolant, check out these homemade water ices and gelati.
Summer may end this month, but that doesn’t mean the heat has gone away. When your tongue needs some coolant, check out these homemade water ices and gelati.
Caffé Gelato (90 E. Main St., Newark, 738-5811) branded itself around the creamy Italian specialty, so you’d better believe owner Ryan German does it well, in the tradition of Northern Italy, using real fruit, nuts, chocolates, milk and cream. Chocolate-hazelnut is the top seller, but with 24 flavors available daily, there’s plenty to choose from. Caffé Gelato also supplies many local restaurants and famous Janssen’s Supermarket with gelato. Last spring, it made watermelon-mint green tea gelato for Longwood Gardens.
The warmer, the better, says Tommy Limmina, owner of Yatz’s Subs & Steaks (626 N. Union St., Wilmington, 658-6659), who, for more than 28 years, has served fresh-made water ice during the summer. The variety of flavors—lemon, strawberry, cherry, mango and a few others—haven’t changed too much, nor have the prices. One dollar still gets you a 10-ounce water ice.
Hoping to compliment its legendary pies, Grotto Pizza (locations statewide) has rolled out its own line of gelato for each of its locations. The artisan gelato is low in fat, and because less air is whipped into it, denser and more flavorful. The most popular choices include chocolate, mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream, and strawberry sorbet.
Owner Bernie Malloy is like the Dr. Frankenstein of water ice. From Bernie’s The Original Water Ice (1701 W. 8th St., Wilmington, 429-8985), Malloy experiments with water ice flavors and combinations to titillate his customers’ taste buds. He’s done caramel apple, bangin’ banana berry, cantaloupe and more. If you see a “tuna” option on the flavor board, kindly refrain. That’s Bernie’s way of saying he’s out of a certain flavor and a new one is on the way. Red hot cinnamon was added over the summer. Still, the old standards sell very well. —Matt Amis