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Why Italian Will Never Go Away

    Italian food is arguably the most universally loved cuisine—at least in the United States. “It’s the history, the passion, the flavors,” says Luigi Vitrone, of Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities. “People love fresh herbs and garlic and olive oil, wonderful wines, exceptional cheeses. Should I go on?”
    In Italy, the line has blurred between casual and fancy. In Delaware, there’s still a difference. Trattorias, warm and casual family-run operations, are ubiquitous in Wilmington’s Little Italy and beyond. More formal restaurants operate statewide. Many serve a combination of Northern and Southern Italian dishes because, as many culinary experts agree, Delaware has Americanized its Italian offerings.
    As a rule, northern cuisine uses more butter, cream, polenta, mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses, risotto and fresh egg pasta. The south favors the tomato and olive oil, as well as mozzarella, cacciacavallo and pecorino cheeses.
    But getting back to why we love Italian food, it’s pretty simple. Delaware’s mom and pop Italian restaurants are places where families serve families. Owners cook for you like they cook at home. It boils down to warmth, authenticity and flavor—things chain restaurants can’t duplicate.

Adriatico Ristorante & Café
22 Midway Shopping Center, Rehoboth Beach, 227-9255
30 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 645-6160
“From our kitchen to you with love” is the first thing patrons read on the menu at Adriatico Ristorante & Café. The declaration matches the family-friendly spot. The Midway location has breezy yellow walls, a large poster of Frank Sinatra and lots of family photographs. The downtown Rehoboth classic is as cozy and homey as only a family place can be. Adriatico has wowed an intergenerational mix of patrons since 1976 and has earned a good reputation for veal, seafood, chicken and pasta specialties. We’d recommend the salsiccia alla peperonata (sausage with peppers and tomatoes—ordered hot) and the old-fashioned eggplant alla Parmigiana, and Adriatico’s fantastic espresso martinis.

Café Mezzanotte
1007 Orange St., Wilmington. 658-7050
A framed photograph of the glorious Sophia Loren greets diners the moment they enter Café Mezzanotte. That’s important. Not only does chef and owner Sergio Pellegrino adore the Italian goddess, his restaurant epitomizes her sophisticated yet approachable style. From the beige wallpaper patterned with fleur de lis to the velvety green upholstered chairs to the iced-glass sconces, the restaurant is casually chic, like Sophia, and its classy bar shakes the best martinis in town. Café Mezzanotte is a great choice for seafood, especially the Chilean sea bass and grilled salmon. Monthly wine tastings with the café’s sommelier are worth a few pours, too.

Café Napoli Restaurant & Pizzeria
4391 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 999-7553
Locals may come to Café Napoli for pizza and beer, but they usually end up ordering wine and excellent baked ziti, which is loaded with ricotta and mozzarella and baked with spicy marinara. Here’s another spot where eggplant Parmigiana is the real deal, though the top seller is tortellini alla boscaiola (ham and mushroom in a pink cream sauce). Napoli’s real surprise is the scungilli salad: a tangy blend of conch, fresh lemon, garlic and olive oil. Ask for extra garlic.

Café Palermo
3612 Miller Road, Wilmington, 762-5818
Want to know where Senator Carper hangs out? Check out Café Palermo. Don’t overlook this little trattoria in the Home Depot strip mall on an unremarkable section of Miller Road. In August the café assumed new leadership, bringing together the team of Michel Colondria, Brian Aglim and Rose Conte. The spruced-up café now attracts lots of locals. It’ll be difficult to pass up the hot, buttery garlic rolls, but save room for our top pick: Palermo’s zuppa di pesci, which is packed with fresh seafood and can be prepared with marinara sauce or garlic white wine sauce. We prefer the latter, made with Franzia wine, fresh basil and visible chunks of garlic. If there were a customer service trophy, Café Palermo would nab it.

Café Riviera
4737 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-8288
Owner Michael Tumolo calls the family restaurant “a glorified pizzeria.” Sorry, Mr. Tumolo, but Riviera is much more. So let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, Café Riviera operates inside Concord Mall, but it is not a mall-type food operation, nor is it a chain. Riviera’s house Italian dressing is the best we’ve tasted anywhere. The fettuccini Sofia Loren (scallops, prosciutto and peas in Aurora sauce) is second to none. Italian sausage and broccoli rabe is like Grandmom’s. Pasta and ravioli are homemade. Pizza toppings, like prosciutto and sirloin steak, are inventive. And the restaurant caters throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And the fact that Macy’s is under the same roof doesn’t hurt.

Café Scalessa’s
504 Greenhill Ave., Wilmington, 656-0955
From the rust-colored walls and crisp white tablecloths to the GoodFellas poster, Café Scalessa’s starts at lovers lane then goes clubbing. Scalessa’s, in fact, is one of the few places to pop the question early, then rock out with your future mate later. In the late hours, televisions air Italian-themed movies on mute, sports play at the bar, and music pounds, followed by a light show and dancing. And there’s food, too. The café turns out great pasta, sausage and chicken dishes, plus a terrific cannoli. There’s no set menu, but if rockfish happens to be a special, you’re golden.

Page 2: More great Italian favorites

 

DiFebo’s Restaurant
789 Garfield Pkwy., Bethany Beach, 539-4550
With its sunny yellow walls, hardwood floors, chic sconces and contemporary window treatments, DiFebo’s Restaurant manages classy and homey at the same time. We go to DiFebo’s for the chilled antipasto alone. Then we add the chicken Juliana or the lobster Bolognese, an amazing dish with black pasta and lobster sauce in cognac cream with arugula and shiitake mushrooms. A family owned place, families are celebrated here. Husband-wife kitchen duo Jeff and Lisa Osias trained at the famed Culinary Institute of America.

In Bocca Al Lupo
1960 S. Dupont Hwy., Smyrna, 659-2110
The name means “into the mouth of the wolf,” an expression for good luck. No wolves here, only hospitable servers like Justin Tunks and skilled chefs such as Joseph Abrams, a former New Yorker. Save for a few plants, antique dishes, textured ceilings and beige curtains, In Bocca is a large, unpretentious living room, though the food is quite a bit fancier. Abrams is a soup connoisseur. Five types of beans and perfectly al dente pitalini pasta drenched in a spicy base make his pasta e fagioli very popular. Other soups plus three main specials appear every weekend. The signature dish is pollo saltimbocca alla Romana. Abrams is Sicilian. Owner Joan Monteleon is from Northern Italy (which might explain the rosemary in the marinara sauce). So cuisine covers both regions.

La Casa Pasta
130 Four Seasons Shopping Center, Newark, 738-9935
For the eyes, there is classically neutral Italian decor with marble floors, stone statues and crème linen tablecloths. For the ears, there is Pavarotti singing in the background. But what really gets you is the smell of bread baking and garlic sautéing. Chef and owner Giuseppe Martuscelli hails from Santa Maria Di Castellabate near Salerno, Italy, and specializes in northern and southern dishes. He uses many fresh herbs and ingredients imported from Italy, and the pasta is homemade. The signature dish is paccheri alla Giuseppe, which combines rigatoni, monkfish, shrimp and cannellini beans in marinara.

Cirelli’s
1201 Savannah Road, Lewes, 645-1980
When Cirelli’s (formerly known as La Rosa Negra) moved to Savannah Road in 2003, business picked up immensely, not because the food improved—it’s always been great—but because of an additional dining room. The elegant Tuscany Room boasts white tablecloths and a full mural. The Venetian Room is casual and comfy. Chef-owner Bob Cirelli keeps it fresh by occasionally changing the menu, but classics like garlicky mussels marinara or superb basil pasta primavera remain. Thursday is veal night. Choose from among 12 nicely prepared dishes. Diablo is a great one. Risotto and cornbread are popular. We love the rockfish sautéed with cream, Marsala wine, sun-dried tomatoes and lump crabmeat.

Lamberti’s Cucina
514 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 762-9094
1300 Centerville Road, Wilmington, 995-6955
Real baked eggplant Parmigiana with cheese oozing over fried eggplant smothered in thick sauce is hard to find these days. It’s always served at Lamberti’s Cucina. Though the restaurant specializes in homemade pasta, chicken, veal, seafood and fresh fish, the sausage and peppers is especially good. The paglia Afieno is prepared with another hard-to-find ingredient: whole-wheat spinach fettuccine.

Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities
415 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington, 656-9822
Old World collides with eclectically cosmopolitan at Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities. In the front open kitchen, Vitrone is probably cracking 30 eggs for his homemade pasta, but walk two steps to find a color scheme of semolina and plum to match the semolina and red wine pastas. Jet-black tabletops copy black squid pasta. But Vitrone’s food is the real art form. All stocks, pasta, sausages and desserts are homemade. Our top picks: grilled polenta, followed by either Hunters cannelloni or zuppa di pesce. Vitrone is a chocolate nut, so try his chocolate sorbet. Wines from France, Italy, California, Australia and Chile abound. Vitrone has sampled each one and will happily advise. All the rage: The Pomme de Glace, an iced apple wine from Quebec. Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities is the only place in Delaware that has it.

Lupo Di Mare
247 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-2240
Matt Haley’s newest venture shines a light on fresh coastal Italian cuisine. Scallops, mussels, clams, calamari, sea bass and even swordfish highlight the seafood-heavy menu. The pasta is great, particularly the gnocchi in gorgonzola cream, and the duck and scallop orecciette, accented with pancetta, spinach and homemade rosemary butter.

Page 3: Even more great local Italian restaurants

 

Madeline’s Italian Restaurant
531 N. Dupont St., Wilmington, 656-4505
When a patron went into labor during dinner, she named her baby Madeline. That’s what we call a family place. The portrait above the fireplace is of Madeline Sparco, the matriarch who founded the eponymous red-gravy restaurant 42 years ago. Other than freshly painted white walls, it’s still the place to go for stuffed shells, veal spezzato, hearty pasta fagioli soup, rich five-layer lasagna, crusty rolls from South Philly and—surprise—an exceedingly creamy lobster bisque. Bring a crowd: Madeline’s is the only spot in Little Italy with a parking lot.

Mancini’s Brick Oven Pizzeria & Restaurant
907 Coastal Hwy., Fenwick Island, 537-4224
Mancini’s is a contradiction in terms. The exposed brick walls, Formica booths and flowery window treatments say trattoria. The food says elegant restaurant. Chef-owner Gabriel Mancini still uses some of his grandparents’ recipes. But he’s polished additional northern, coastal and southern fare with his own tricks. Try Mancini’s unique crabmeat bruschetta to start. Main dishes such as veal scaloppini or capellini con pollo and carciofi (angel hair pasta with chicken breast and artichoke hearts) are good bets, too. Mancini’s family friendly staff patiently tends to toddlers.

Mazzella’s Italian Restaurant
729 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 762-8722
Mazzella’s Italian Restaurant is a neighborhood hangout that screams pizza joint but cooks homemade meals. The taproom-type spot is as welcoming to little chefs celebrating their third birthdays as it is to bowling leagues yucking it up over pizza and beer. Chicken cacciatore, as well as sausage, peppers and onions are first rate. If you crave mouth-watering, garlicky broccoli rabe, this is your place.

Mrs. Robino’s Family Style Italian Food
520 N. Union St., Wilmington, 652-9223
Mrs. Robino’s defines classic. Other than a little re-sanding, the dark panels built by Frank Robino Sr. in 1940 still hang at Mrs. Robino’s. Not much has changed since Tresilla Robino simmered her traditional red sauce for neighbors, not even the recipe. Chefs make 60 gallons of sauce at a time, five days a week. For homemade pasta, look no further. The same pizza roller great granddad Robino bought for a few bucks in the 1940s and manager Joseph Manuti retooled last year for $2,800 creates the unusually textured noodles. Call that a good investment. This old contraption produces the best spaghetti and ravioli in town. Mrs. R’s still uses a variation of placements with classic cocktails printed on them (though we wonder if anyone has ever ordered a pink squirrel).

Nonna Ristorante
Rt. 4 at Harmony Road, Newark, 737-9999
Nonna Ristorante sits in a strip mall next to a Best Nails, but it’s no pizza parlor. Aside from a few artsy lamps and several gold-framed mirrors, it isn’t fancy either. Yet Nonna boasts two unique offerings: wine on tap (a cruvine system that infuses a shot of nitrogen per glass and saves wine from oxygen’s perils), and a separate cheese menu. Gorgonzola dolce is our first choice. Nonna is an exceptional place for veal. Chef-owner Chris Peters’ masterpiece is the veal Abruzzi, which features crimini mushrooms and hot peppers in a white wine-garlic sauce.

Ristorante Attilio
1900 Lancaster Ave., Wilmington, 428-0909
A cross between your parents’ first rec room and the parish dining hall, Ristorante Attilio is the ultimate neighborhood hangout. It’s a place where kids celebrate their First Holy Communions and locals bemoan the Eagles. The dark-paneled trattoria offers the best Italian wedding soup in Little Italy. Ditto for the pepper and egg sandwiches. The slightly tart, thick and garlicky red gravy is best when it smothers lightly breaded, juicy chicken for Parmigiana. All pasta is made on the premises. If you’re called “hon,” you’re family.

Ristorante Mona Lisa
607 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington, 888-2201
Ristorante Mona Lisa is one of Little Italy’s upscale offerings. A portrait of the painted lady hovers over a dining area graced with Roman columns, Pellegrino water bottles, white tablecloths and a black marble bar. Italian background music and exceptional service are pluses—as is valet parking. Owner and chef Nancy Campitielo hails from Salerno, and specializes in veal, risotto and polenta. (Try the ricotta and mozzarella version.) Northern and Southern cuisine is prepared well, but the lemony pollo picante and spicy shrimp marinara top our list. Share the profiterole, a cream puff with sweet filling and chocolate. The coffee is the best we’ve had in Little Italy. Since Claire Mauk and her brother David Mauk purchased the place in December, they’ve slowly put their touches on it. “We’re improving the wine list—big time,” says Claire, who was the sommelier at Columbus Inn for nearly 14 years.

Page 4: More Italian favorites

 

Ristorante Pomodoro Italiano
720 N. Union St., Wilmington, 574-9800
Salerno natives and brothers Francesco and Marco Parmisciano have brought Italy’s southernmost regions to Wilmington. Francesco created the menu and extensive wine list. Marco runs the business. He also laid every tile of floor and wall, as well as every square of imported glass around the bar. Francesco is just as passionate about food. Huge chunks of real lobster—not the usual little bits—make his linguine alla astice special. The salsiccia alla griglia, a marriage of sausage, smoked mozzarella and cannellini beans, representative of the Campania region, is a unique dish in this area. Pomodoro specializes in cured Italian meats. Its insalata di bresaola mixes fresh bresaola, a cured beef, with fennel and umbriaco cheese in a vinaigrette. Smoked prosciutto is a highlight in the gamberi con insalata, which is nicely topped with orange-fennel vinaigrette. Fresh salami is served with mixed cheeses in the house antipasto. A complimentary shot of Lemicello, made with cream, lemon and 95-proof grain alcohol, is a memorable finale. Save room for the homemade tiramisu. It’s the best in town.

Roma
3 President Drive, Dover, 678-1045
Whether the meal is served at Roma or a relative’s table on Sunday afternoon, the experience is the same: a celebration of family, friends and food in a rustic setting. Chef Joseph Garramone Jr. learned to cook from his pop, owner and founder Giuseppe Garramone. Locals go there, essentially, for the tomato sauce. Joey won’t spill the recipe, but he slow-roasts the veggies, then simmers the gravy for a minimum of 15 hours. Roma is the place for saltimboca alla Roma: veal topped with prosciutto, sautéed spinach and tons of melted mozzarella. Much to our delight, the popular pan-seared ahi tuna is finally a menu item.

Sapori Ristorante Italiano
3801 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, 654-9501
Owner Antonio Lubrano opened Sapori in September to offer central and southern Italian cuisine in a Tuscan-style environment warmed by beige tablecloths, stucco walls and navy blue cloth napkins. Chef James Kozongo, who trained in Paris and Belgium, does not make vats of gravy. He prepares all sauces to order. Popular fare is the vitello gamberi, an unusual combo of veal medallions and jumbo shrimp with white wine sauce, and the pollo al balsamico—Sapori’s version of Marsala—prepared by sautéing zucchini and eggplant in a balsamic wine sauce. Sapori also serves unique noodles, most notably large tortelloni stuffed with veal, strozzapreti and thick, tubular bucatini.

Sovana Bistro
696 Unionville Road, Kennett Square, Pa., (610) 444-5600
We love the fresh fare at Sovana, where the flavors of artichoke, black olive and arugula are allowed to assert themselves against the homemade mozarella and a ragoût of duck with butternut squash and dried cherries harmonizes perfectly over fettucini. A fave: the roasted pork chop with cannellini and Swiss chard braised with salty pancetta. Don’t worry: There are plenty of pasta dishes, and the pizzas rock. And don’t forget to take your own wine; like many Pennsylvania places, Sovana is a BYOB.

Toscana Kitchen and Bar
1412 N. DuPont St., Wilmington, 654-8001
Toscana Kitchen and Bar may be 18 years old, but because it’s a hip bar as well as a fine eatery, it remains one of the most contemporary restaurants in Trolley Square. “The bar scene during the late nights is unique because it appeals to a sophisticated crowd that is entirely congruous to regular dining patrons,” says chef-owner Dan Butler. Hand-rolled pastas and desserts are excellent and the wines are well chosen. But carb-out on the breadsticks: No one does them better. Butler’s signature dishes are tortellini and ravioli—which are  more sublimely toothsome than you would ever expect. We also pay due homage to the fettuccine with shrimp, scallops and mussels in tomato-saffron cream. We’re sure the capellini with tomato and roasted garlic has never left the menu, despite its many iterations.

Vallé Cucina Italiano
Pike Creek Shopping Center, 4725 Limestone Road, Wilmington, 998-9999
Much has changed since this pizzeria went uptown. Every booth has its own heartleaf philodendron peering over it, making the 3,600-square-foot bistro a cozy haven for locals who enjoy large portions of Northern and Southern Italian dishes and meaty crab cakes. Grandma Doris Reno still makes the baked eggplant Parmigiana, pastas and superb crabmeat ravioli with Angelina sauce. Steak man and executive chef Eric Orsetti is partial to the 14-ounce ribeye. We love the 10-ounce filet mignon with bianca sauce.

 

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