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Small Plates, Big Flavor

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Three popular tapas dishes are shrimp with garlic and piquillo peppers, wild Argentinian scallops in saffron cream, and braised beef turnover with green salsa. Photograph by Thom ThompsonOrillas Tapas Bar and Restaurant
413 N. Market St., Wilmington
427-9700, www.orillastapasbar.com

Prices

Tapas $5-$9
Large Plates $12-$17
Shared Plates $4-28

Recommended Dishes
Empanadas, ceviche, meats and cheeses, flatbread
 
 

From Tex-Mex to tapas, Latin-influenced cuisine is hot, hot, hot. For proof, head to Philly, where El Camino Real—a cowboy bar-taquería—recently joined such favorites as Amada, Distrito, Tinto, Lolita and Xochitl. Delaware diners last fall welcomed Olé Tapas Bar in Newark and, soon after, Orillas Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Market Street in Wilmington.

Not only is Orillas Wilmington’s only true tapas restaurant, but it also is among the businesses spearheading activity on lower Market Street. No small feat. To wit, Orillas is housed in space formerly occupied by The Maine Course, a lobster restaurant that came and went before the new courthouse opened. True, development has come a long way since then, but one thing has not changed: Orillas, owned by former Deep Blue chef Julio Lazzarini, must attract diners downtown and then excite them enough to return.

Tapas is a novel enough concept to tempt first-timers, especially if they’ve yet to sample the real deal. Orillas is doing just that. The 67-seat dining room was packed on a recent Friday night.

The question is, will diners go back? Yes, if they continue to crave the empanadas’ flaky crust or the amazingly tender octopus ceviche. And yes, if they appreciate a wonderful array of smoked meats and tasty cheeses. Served on a wood platter, our cheese selection included Cabrales, a blue cheese produced only in the village of Cabrales; a wedge of dry manchego, made from sheep’s milk; and murica, a goat cheese that, when infused with red wine, is known as drunken goat cheese. (Without the wine, it’s called naked goat cheese.) The wedges shared the board with Serrano ham, mild chorizo sausage and cantimpalo, a coarsely ground, dry-cured sausage with smoked paprika.

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Executive chef-owner Julio Lazzarini and sous chef Emilio Rodriguez in the kitchen. Photograph by Thom Thompson Lazzarini serves the medley with pots of honey, dulce de leche (a caramel-tasting dip) and fig compote. The honey and figs made a lovely pairing with the milder cheeses. But what to do with the dulce de leche? I simply savored it on my fork. Lazzarini later told me that it is meant to cut the pungency of the Cabrales. Servers should inform the guests.

Ceviche is displayed prominently on the menu, and diners can sample from two to four with the tasting option. Both the octopus and red snapper possessed a bright, tingly flavor, owing to the citrus marinade that cooks the seafood. Chunks of avocado mingled with the snapper, and scarlet ribbons of piquillo peppers nuzzled the octopus.
 
I was impressed with the tenderness of the octopus, which, in the wrong hands, can make a pink eraser seem tender in comparison. The kitchen simmers a whole Mediterranean octopus in white wine sprinkled with lemons, salt, bay leaves and a mirepoix for about six hours. “When I see the head start to fall of the body, that is when I pull it out of the water,” says Lazzarini. “When you roll your hands over the tentacles and the skin falls off, it’s done.” Not a pretty picture, but when blended with piquillo peppers, it is a pretty dish.

The classic flatbread, however, woke my mouth right up. Strips of white anchovies marinated in white vinegar shared the edible canvas with snappy asparagus, sliced hard-boiled egg and more piquillo peppers.

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White and red sangria and slices of Spanish manchego cheese. Photograph by Thom Thompson“Flatbread—cocas—is very traditional in Spain,” Lazzarini says. “The ingredients can be anything you want.” Though more pickled than pungent, the anchovies’ presence was hard to miss.

I expected to see cod croquettes on the menu, but there was nothing offered during my visits. Lazzarini says he initially “played it safe, but now I know what I can serve here, and I’m adding more traditional dishes like cod fritters.”

I sampled Serrano ham croquettes served with a guava-rum glaze. Finely diced ham meshed with a velvety béchamel sauce to create a luscious filling. The kitchen has a real skill with dishes that require a crisp crust. It manages to deliver a crunchy coating while keeping the contents moist. Witness both the empanada de pollo and the empanada de ropa vieja, cut into neat triangles and perched on a plate.
 

The classic flatbread woke my mouth right up. Strips of white anchovies marinated in white vinegar shared the edible canvas with snappy asparagus, sliced hard-boiled egg and more piquillo peppers.

The fly in the sangria is the service. There didn’t seem to be enough servers on one occasion, and the process was slow. On a busy night, don’t linger over coffee. The hostess gave us the evil eye to such an extent we forewent dessert. Our server had discouraged us anyway by noting the small selection. Maybe she wanted the table free, too.

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Server Claire McKenny brings the wine. Photograph by Thom ThompsonOrillas’ wine list mines Spain, but it only states the name and price. There’s no provenance, nor a description, and I wouldn’t count on your server to know. When I asked for a caipirinha, she checked with the bartender and then told me it was unavailable. “That’s mostly a Mediterranean drink,” she said. Actually, it’s Brazilian. Yet if the bartender did believe it was Mediterranean, shouldn’t it be on a Spanish restaurant’s menu?

Philly tapas restaurants quite smartly know that the beverage offerings are as important as the food. At Orillas, I tasted the worst mojito I’ve had. Served in a goblet brimming with ice, the drink was mostly mint and what tasted like club soda. There was no discernable rum or lime flavor.

I hope the cocktail menu picks up soon, because Orillas really does have a tasty concept that many area diners will support. There are at least 10 dishes I’d like to try. The larger plates, including grilled churrasco steak with yucca fries, are tempting. But until I make my way through the menu, the call of the tapas is too strong of a siren song.

So will diners come back? I will—for the empanadas, for the ceviche, for the meats and cheeses, and for the dishes that, like Orillas, are packed with potential.
 

Page 5: Viva La Casa Pasta

 

Giuseppe and Anna Martuscelli with their renowned paccheri alla Giuseppe. Photograph by Tom NutterViva La Casa Pasta

Like many residents of Santa Maria di Castellabate, a gorgeous coastal hamlet near Salerno, Italy, Giuseppe Martuscelli’s family took a boat out each day to catch fresh fish. “And then we’d cook them right away,” he says. “It tastes best that way.”

For 31 years, Martuscelli, a former cook in the Italian navy, and his wife, Anna, have helmed the Italian landmark La Casa Pasta (120 Four Seasons Pkwy., Newark, 738-9935). Though the building has seen four or five renovations and several expansions, little has changed about Martuscelli’s passion for flavorful, homemade coastal Italian cuisine.

“It’s my passion. I love what I’m doing, and nobody beats the hours I put in,” he says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Customers are doubly satisfied. They go for Martuscelli’s large menu of homemade pasta, fresh seafood and veal dishes. His famous paccheri alla Giuseppe combines extra-wide rigatoni noodles, monkfish, shrimp, cannelloni beans, Collina tomatoes and marinara sauce.

La Casa Pasta opened in 1978. Many of his regulars from the ’70s still visit. Even sports celebrities like Cal Ripken Jr., Dallas Green, Tubby Raymond and the late Reggie White have graced La Casa. “Big portions for big guys,” Martuscelli says.  —Matt Amis

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