Installation #3 (the bakery at Five Points actually makes it 4) of the popular Touch of Italy Italian deli/restaurant group opened with great pomp & circumstance in mid-July 2013 in Shore Plaza, directly across from Tanger Seaside Outlets. It's been a wild ride for everybody involved with Touch of Italy, from the drama surrounding the opening of their first location on Baltimore Avenue in Rehoboth, to the sad conflict between former friend/investor/mentor Bob Ciprietti and original Millville Touch of Italy owners Frank & Louie Bascio, to the largely unfounded rumors and scuttlebutt flying all over the place about everyone involved. As of this writing, the former paisanos and business partners are still not speaking to one another, and the whole thing is probably going to end up in court. Perhaps mixing friendship, family and business isn't that good an idea after all. That's all you're getting out of me. My lips are sealed.
But one thing that the above-captioned guys will always have in common (whether they like it or not) is a genuine love for Italian cooking, baking and eating. Ciprietti and the Brothers Bascio grew up surrounded by Italian cuisine and those who love to prepare it. Ciprietti speaks reverently of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where to this day there are bakeries, butchers and cheese shops where very little English is spoken. I've been there and know it to be true. Things don't get much more authentic than that.
The newest Touch of Italy is similar to TOI II in downtown Lewes, except that it's much (much!) bigger and can turn out a wider variety of dishes more efficiently. And the deli-bakery counter is almost 3 times as long.
One of my favorites is the wood-fired pizza. No, my friends, it is not "burned!" Forget about that limp, tepid product that's passed through a window at Ray's in Manhattan. The pizza that Biaggio Lucci [pictured, left] and his fellow piemakers create in the almost 1000-degree oak-fueled clay chamber is puffy, surprisingly light and crunchy. The crust bubbles up from the intense heat, creating thin, air-filled voids that generate a sensation that's akin to the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Zipper at Trimper's at the Ocean City Inlet. The higher the bubble, the closer it is to the heat and the more it will char. The "CRACKLE" that ensues is testament to the fresh, yeasty dough that is worked just long enough to ensure an elastic "pull" to every bite. I save the best 'til last: The crust.
There's a wide variety of toppings, including broccoli rabe (rapini -- more like turnip tops than broccoli), arugula, balsamic (yup -- you heard it), prosciutto, ricotta, parma cotta ham and oil-cured black olives. My hands-down favorite is the sopressata, Italian sausage and mushroom pizza [pictured, right]. The thin-sliced sopressata (sort of a thin salami resembling prosciutto, but firmer and more intense) crisps up quickly in concert with the spicy Italian sausage. Don't plan to eat again for a couple of days.
My preferred Foodie-at-Arms loves the broccoli rabe/fresh mozzarella-topped pie. The stems of the vegetable have not been boiled to death, so they are still firm and perfectly to the tooth.
OK, I think I've made my point. Of course, where there's pizza, there's calzones and strombolis. Basically pizza turnovers, and they are also a wood-fired delight.
The TOI Bakery in Five Points runs around-the-clock turning out bread and baked goods not only for the three TOI stores, but also for other eateries and sandwich shops in town. The star item is the sub roll. The sub menu at TOI III is very similar to that of TOI II in Lewes, including the Rocky Marciano (my favorite) with hot sopressata, sharp provolone, roasted peppers and olive oil [pictured, upper right] (add a sprinkle of grated parm, ground hot cherry pepper flakes and a drizzle of balsamic -- all available at the table). Other tasty sandwiches include the Don Orazio (named after the very same Don Orazio who taught TOI mozzarella maven and all-around-nice-guy Mikey Berardinelli to create that creamy and slightly salty nectar of the gods), consisting of hot capicola ham, mozzarella, roasted peppers and the required olive oil [pictured, left], the Dante (grilled eggplant, olives, mushrooms, peppers, artichokes and provolone) [pictured, right] and 17 others. The slightly firm, sesame seeded outside of the roll gives way to a light and eggy inside that soaks up the oils, vinegars and pepper juices, thus becoming an integral part of the sandwich experience. Try 'em all and zero-in on your favorite.
One of the stars of the appetizer show is the bocconcini wrapped in prosciutto and roasted with a hint of rosemary and olive oil [pictured, left]. Chalk this one up to the quintessential bacon & cheese experience, as the ovoid dollop of mozzarella softens as the prosciutto crisps up. Another must-get is the traditional Arancini, a ball of rice infused with mushrooms, peas and fontini (a hard aged Italian cheese), pan fried and served with a porcini cream sauce. Other tasty appetizers include an eggplant tower, pumpkin ravioli and mussels, just to name a few. Mama's Meatballs are also quite good; tender and rich with Italian spices. You can get them and the parms as subs too [pictured, lower left].
Man (or woman) cannot live by pizza alone! (I love those old proverbs.) One of the entree stars of the show at TOI III is the simple, straight-ahead and expertly pounded and cooked chicken parmesan, lovingly slathered with creamy melted meunster sidled up to a nest of taglietelle pasta. Twice (twice, I tell you!) I have tried to get a photo of this dish for you, and TWICE it was attacked before I could even get the camera running. I will continue to try, though I fear I might lose a finger in the process. Mmmm ... maybe a telephoto lens....
Other entrees that have visited our table include the Orecchietti Pasta with Broccoli Rabe, Sausage and Garlic; hand-crafted Ravioli from Borgatti's on Arthur Avenue served simply with a Tomato-Basil marinara and a dollop of fresh Ricotta, and the unbelievably creamy Pollo Taleggio [pictured, left], topped with Prosciutto de Parma in a White Wine Herb Sauce. There are 10 other Primo and Secondo Piatti from which to choose. I have been witness to the post-prandial smiles they have all generated.
Of course, Touch of Italy started out as a bakery many years ago, so dessert is de rigueur. The eclairs, creampuffs and napoleons are filled with real egg custard (not that cheap whipped-cream nonsense some places dish-up to the philistines who don't know any better). The almond-infused cookies include little ping-pong ball-size rounds either plain or studded with nutty pignolis. The chocolate cream cheese cookie is ... do I really need to describe it? The name says it all. And the macaroons can easily be popped into your waiting mouth with -- or without -- a dip in chocolate. Don't leave without trying the Italian Wedding Cookies [pictured, above left].
It's difficult to see the end of the deli cases at TOI III because of the curvature of the earth. But if you squint, you will see endless Italian meats, cheeses and confections all for the choosing, slicing, wrapping, or eating right there in front of everybody.
If you're lucky, mozzarella guy Felipe "C.C." Santendener's very talented dad, Sergio Azocar Delle Valle will be singing and playing the guitar [pictured, right]. I spent over 50 years in the music business, and I'm here to tell ya' this guy is good. He sings in Italian, Spanish and English.
I really hate telling you this, as it's hard enough to get a seat there, but the bar is the place to be at Touch of Italy III. The bartenders are all friendly and fun [say hi to Kymmr, pictured left], and some of their specialty drinks are not to be missed; in particular the grapefruit crush.
Bob Ciprietti does pretty much everything first-class, and as both a builder and restaurateur, he has put a lot of himself into this location. The huge skylight (how did they get all that copper to verdegris in just a few weeks!?! Go, and see if you can figure it out....), the custom stained glass pieces (one of which has a real wine bottle soldered into the window) [pictured, right] and the big, inviting communal tables all add up to a home run.
I debated whether to write this, but decided to do it anyway: Around noon on TOI III's first day in business, I was honored to join Bulldog, Big Al Reno and Coach from WOCM 98.1 on the air during their live broadcast in the parking lot. As things wound down, I assumed my place at the bar and proceeded to stay until about 11. The place was literally slammed with customers, and Sergio was strolling, strumming and singing amongst the tables. At one point, the entire room burst into song with him (I think it was "Volare"). Mind you, co-owner Bob Ciprietti had spent the last 6 months of his life, from early morning to late at night, nursing, coaxing and wrestling this restaurant to completion; and as the entire room raised their glasses and sang along with Sergio, I was watching Bob. I've never seen a smile that big.
Touch of Italy III is located at 19724 Coastal Highway, in Shore Plaza, adjacent to Nage, Root Gourmet, Hickman's Meats and Outlet Liquors and directly across from Chipotle Mexican Grill and Tanger Seaside Outlets.
If you time your visit carefully, you can even get your Oreck vacuum cleaner fixed as you buy Hot Stix from Bill and Will Hickman, grab a cocktail at Nage, pick up a red velvet cheesecake from Root, and order a pizza to go (and those ricotta cookies!) at Touch of Italy. Don't forget your favorite beverage from Outlet Liquors. Check out the dinner menu here. Check out the lunch menu here. (302) 227-3900. Open 7 days until about 10. (L., D., Bar) Price Range: Moderate-.
Why a 9.5? The ratings are not direct comparisons of one restaurant to another. That wouldn't make any sense, given that so many different types of restaurants are reviewed here. The rating is intended to tell you how well a restaurant delivers on what it claims to be, and how much value it gives for the money spent. Up to this point, Touch of Italy has consistently fulfilled those requirements both in the food and service categories. That could always change, and often does....