Bob Ciprietti and his partners have completed work on the new Touch of Italy bakery in Five Points, the newest TOI on Coastal Highway is under construction, and the downtown Lewes location continues to pack 'em in. Case in point: I try to schedule my review visits in such a way that I can go a few times during the season and also the off-season, giving me a better idea of how places adjust their service between summer and winter. To that end, one of my visits to Touch of Italy in Lewes took place on a cool, late December weeknight. In fact, I wondered if they would even be open. When I called, I was told, "We'll keep the place open for you." How nice. And I fell for it.
Open? The place was packed! People were crowded around the door waiting for tables or to be served at the deli counter. In fact, I had to push them out of the way just to get inside. Was this Katz's or Carnegie Deli in New York? Was this Zabar's on the upper West Side where you have to fist fight your way to the acre-and-a-half of cheese? Indeed, it was a tiny place in Lewes -- in the winter, yet.
Owners Bob Ciprietti and Joe Curzi have hit the jackpot. Of course, you couldn't do much better than the corner of Second and Savannah, directly across from the Buttery, Striper Bites and Jerry's Seafood. It's pretty much the chewing epicenter of the First Town in the First State. And before long, that store will be duplicated in Rehoboth, next door to Outlet Liquors across from Tanger Seaside, complete with outdoor dining. Construction has already begun as of mid-winter 2013.
Gigantic cheeses and cured meats hang from the ceiling.
The cold cases are jammed with prepared salads, cut cheeses, Borgatti ravioli, fresh ricotta and mozzarella, sausage (several varieties) and the entire gamut of Italian meats. Fresh loaves of bread are stacked like logs. Packaged goodies like Nutella (they sell the barrel-sized one!), dried pastas, dressings, Panettones, spices and crackers fill every available space.
The wood-fired oven [pictured, left], cranks out puffy, charred pizzas and crunchy calzones stuffed with everything from sopressata (think pepperoni on steroids) to basil to spinach to black olives. And, of course, each contains their signature handmade mozzarella cheese. It's like eating a cloud. Well, OK, a cloud with calories. But some things must be experienced. Leave your silly diet at home.
Table service boils down to three categories: pizza/calzones, stuffed Italian sandwiches/antipasti, and entrees like Chicken Parm, pastas Alfredo or Bolognese and some specials like homemade brasciole or marinated hangar steak on garlicky wilted greens (it was delicious!).
On my first few visits earlier this year I was disappointed that the filling-to-bread ratio of the sandwiches seemed to be off. In fact, this was also a problem at the Rehoboth location, where the meats/cheeses/toppings were dwarfed by the Italian loaf. This has changed. On my last three visits, the subs (they call them "Heros") were packed with the requisite fillings. Can't eat bread? How sad. Get the antipasto [pictured, top right]. It's delicious and jam packed with Italian goodies.
On our last visit, we tried the Prosciutto-wrapped Bocconcini appetizer [pictured, below left]. Though it was advertised as a special, we were assured that it's permanently on the menu. Three snow-white orbs of marinated mozzarella (aka bocconcini) are wrapped in deeply savory and hauntingly sweet prosciutto. It's pan-seared in rosemary and olive oil just long enough to crisp up the ham (this is what bacon will be like in Heaven). Trust your Foodie on this one. Order it.
UPDATE: Yesterday's lunch yielded a hit -- and a miss. My lovely companion (a mucky-muck at Southern DE Tourism and all-around cutiepie) ordered the #1 sandwich dubbed the Blanco E'Rosso [pictured, left]. TOI's homemade mozzarella was paired with tomatoes, basil and olive oil to make what is basically a caprese salad on a roll. My sandwich, the Don Orazio (#2), was a disappointment [pictured, below left]. Though the bread (simply delicious with a perfect texture) held up its end of the bargain, the hot capicola ham did not. I always make sure my meats at TOI are cut thin-as-air. Italian meats are fatty, and the thinner they are they more palatable they are. But these particular slices of capicola were just waaayy too fatty. I ended up picking most of it out of the sandwich, leaving it quivering on the plate. The accompanying bread and Mikey's cloud-like mozzarella were the only saving graces for my lunch yesterday. It made me sad, as I love the place. What to do? Unless you really like your deli meats fatty (and some do), just order the #3 [described below and pictured below right]. Their sopressata beats their capicola hands-down. UPDATE WITHIN AN UPDATE!: I just came back from the Lewes TOI where I tried the Don Orazio again. It was perfectly delicious. The snafu in the previous paragraph was apparently a one-time-deal. So all is well. (In at least 12 visits so far, the previous issue was the first and only snafu. So the ratings remain the same (for now).
Now back to our regular programming:
One of my favorite subs (oops...Heros) is the Rocky Marciano (spicy sopressata, sliced deli-thin and layered on an impossibly fresh Italian roll along with a bracingly sharp hard provolone and roasted sweet peppers) [pictured, below right]. I add hot peppers. Wimps, don't fret: They're not all that hot, but they really add a lot of flavor. On our most recent visit, my favorite Foodie-Cutie (undisputed queen of the hot buttered rums) and that guy she lives with ordered The Dante (grilled eggplant with a grilled melange of peppers, olives, mushrooms and artichokes) [pictured, below left]. A milder, softer provolone tops it off.
Another must-get is the Chicken Parm Hero [pictured, below right]. I was surprised to find creamy Muenster melted overtop of the chicken. (One of the secrets of my own near-perfect chicken parm. I guess it's not a secret anymore....) Of course, their milky mozzarella is included. Like it more spicy? Get the Don Orazio (hot Capicola plus all the usual goodies).
Relive the Atlantic City boardwalk (loved it in the '70s. <<sigh>>) with a Sausage, Peppers and Onion Hero. Or channel Mulberry Street in New York by digging into the Italian Combo (mortadella, mild parma cotta ham, Genoa salami (soft, cured like a sausage) and a mild provolone. Mangia!
The wood-fired oven stays busy with pizzas, calzones and the like. Of course, I have to be difficult and make up my own toppings, so on our last visit we ordered the Alla Sopressata (mushrooms and that delightful sopressata) and added Italian sausage [pictured, below left]. It was quite good.
The pizzas come with all sorts of toppings, including the Parma Cotta ham, broccoli rabe, prosciutto, artichokes -- you name it. I have to tell you that the meat/cheese toppings are the star of the pizza show here at Touch of Italy. The tomato sauce is OK, but the piled-high toppings are what make it great.
In light of that, one of the sleepers in the pizza dept. is the Al Bianco (white pizza) [pictured, bottom right]. You can add anchovies for a couple of bucks, but the absence of sauce is no great loss. Fully experience the marriage of three cheeses and that crackly, charred crust. Interestingly, the combination of ricotta, mozzarella, grated cheese and olive oil reminded me of the Sun-Ni Armenian String Cheese upon which I noshed long before I was a fully formed Foodie (black Nigella seeds (an aromatic spice popular in Indian cuisine), a hint of vinegar, and mahleb (a Middle-Eastern spice made of ground black cherry pits, with a taste reminiscent of almond and cherry). The Bianco will surprise you. Go ahead, add the anchovies! Life is short.
Touch of Italy is associated with the delightful little salumeria/pasticceria on Baltimore Ave. in Rehoboth Beach. With the late 2012 exit of Lou and Frankie Bascio, that location is now managed by Denise DeRosa, the original owner of La Rosa Negra when it was on Second St. in Lewes. Rumors of the demise of the downtown location are simply wrong.
Space at the Rehoboth installation is tight, so their carryout offerings are limited to deli meats/cheese, sandwiches involving same, dry/packaged goods, and, of course, their signature bakery items (Note: Their sfogliatelle was, still is, and forever will be, the best I have ever had. Hands down.)
We will keep you posted as they expand into their fourth location in Shore Plaza in Rehoboth. Click here for a look at their menu on their brand new website.
They are hard to miss at 101 Second St. at the corner with Savannah. Call them (302) 827-2730 to check their off-season hours, and be ready for a bit of a wait.
The place is lively, noisy and even has a small bar. They have a full liquor license, so enjoy a glass of wine or your favorite cocktail while you strike up a conversation with neighboring tables. It's easy to do--they're all within earshot. (L., D., Bar) Price range: Moderate -.