Sweet Somethings in the Air

Nearly 20 years after starting as a home-based business, Sweet Somethings continues to churn out the treats

A water ice after a Little League game; a Pez dispenser at a birthday party; miniature Snickers and Milky Way bars in a trick-or-treat bag. Most of these experiences probably take you back to childhood, and with good reason.

There is a strong connection between our earliest memories and sweets. Whether it’s baking holiday cookies with mom, making pumpkin pie with grandma, trick-or-treating, or a birthday cake with family and friends, sweets can bring out the strongest of nostalgic feelings.

At Sweet Somethings, a bakery and dessert shop on Union Street in Wilmington, they count on that evocative connection. By churning out some of the best cakes, pies, cupcakes and other sweet treats, they’ve turned a home business into a thriving shop, almost two decades in the baking.

Turtle Tart: heaven
Turtle Tart: heaven

Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia

For Lee Slaninko, owner of Sweet Somethings, making connections with his customers is important. When people walk into his bakery, he wants them to be whisked back to the first time they tried a particular dessert when they were a kid.

“There are plenty of places that do ‘cutting edge’ desserts, but for me, it’s about making products you remember as a kid, with grandma,” Slaninko says. “We try and marry that with good service, creative design, and great taste. When you have all three, I believe that’s a recipe for success.”

But just because he counts on that nostalgia doesn’t mean he wants his physical space to look that way. Sweet Somethings is clean as a whistle, with contemporary furniture and design, sparkling display cases, and an open kitchen that offers a view of every last baking activity.

“A lot of bakeries have old paneling, double swinging doors, glass cases older than your grandfather, and sheet pans that have been bent from wear and tear,” Slaninko says. “When I walk in to a place like that, I think, ‘Really?’ I didn’t want that when we designed this place, so it’s completely transparent. You see everything from our dry storage and ovens to our bakers shaving white chocolate and decorating.”

The showy display is a far cry from where Sweet Somethings began. Back in 1997, while working as servers at the first Iron Hill location in Newark, Slaninko and his wife began baking out of his home in Kennett Square, Pa., selling mostly to neighbors and friends.

“When we worked at Iron Hill, we did Sweet Somethings completely on the side, until we convinced the owners to use our desserts at their Main Street location,” Slaninko says. “We were kind of frustrated with what they were serving at that time, so we brought in our desserts and they gave us a shot.”

Among those desserts was the now-famous oatmeal cake, a gooey, rolled-oats-and-brown sugar spice cake topped with an icing that, when served warm, melts down the side of the cake. Though Sweet Somethings and Iron Hill cut ties in 2013, the oatmeal cake is still a seller at the Union Street shop.

From there, Sweet Somethings could eventually be found on several area menus over the years, first at Half Moon Saloon in Kennett, then Valle Cucina in Pike Creek, followed by Culinaria in North Wilmington, and for several years now, at all five Two Stones Pub locations.

Mike Stiglitz, director of operations and owner of Two Stones and 2SP Brewing Company, is a former Iron Hill sous chef who remembers Slaninko’s desserts from way back. In fact, “Stigz” says he used to drive to Wilmington for Sweet Somethings desserts when he ran restaurants at the beach.

“Lee’s incredible desserts are not only local, delicious and creative, but they are priced better than any frozen box dessert from any purveyor,” Stiglitz says. “Honestly, it’s a no-brainer. I’ve done the math, and adding labor, ingredients and, most importantly, quality, [going with an] inconsistent product costs me way more than continuing to buy [from Sweet Somethings].”

Arguably the most “incredible” dessert at Two Stones—and one of their best sellers—is the Peanut Butter Tasty Cake. A peanut butter mousse and chocolate ganache masterpiece, the dessert tastes like a gourmet version of Kandy Kakes, made by a Philadelphia institution, Tastykake.

Sweet Somethings’ continued success is due in large part to a pair of baking sisters, Candace and Tiffany Ewald, who joined the shop about five years ago. At that time, Slaninko had recently bought his former wife out of the business, and needed help steering a ship he thought had been “teetering” for a couple of years.

Assorted tarts and cakes crowd the display case.
Assorted tarts and cakes crowd the display case.

We Are Family

As with many trades, baking has been in the Ewald family for generations. Sisters Candace, 29, and Tiffany, 28, first started decorating cakes alongside their mother and grandmother in grade school. While both attended Wilmington University for business management, they eventually returned to what they love.

“I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Philly, and after six months, I knew I had to get an internship,” says Candace, the shop’s pastry chef. “While I was looking for one, I saw that Sweet Somethings was hiring for a full-time baker. I couldn’t do both, so I left school and started here full-time in 2010.”

Candace says she’s more of a savory than sweet person, but loves to make custom cakes for clients. She recently made a high heel cake, which required a lot of fondant and a mold she had to create herself.

Tiffany, who serves as the shop’s bakery director, loves to make flan and cupcakes at Sweet Somethings, and hopes the recent trend for the wrapped miniature cakes continues. As she says, “I have the freedom to make about a dozen different cupcake flavors each day, and I love having that creative outlet.”

On the topic of “everything pumpkin,” wherein the sweet gourd seems to dominate lattés and IPAs these days, both sisters agree: there is a time and a place. They try to steer away from making pumpkin desserts until October, and as Tiffany puts it, emphatically, “We won’t have any pumpkin products in our showcase until summer is over!”

Slaninko and the Ewald sisters are looking forward to a very busy autumn and holiday season, and see trends like yule logs, butterscotch desserts and turnovers all dominating the bakery. For more information on their offerings or to place an order, stop by the shop at 1006 N. Union St., or visit them online at sweetsomethingsdesserts.com.

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Making a Dent

Though the bottle remains craft beer’s vessel of choice, the can is resurgent, and it’s here to stay

Back in the day (Jan. 24, 1935, to be exact), when canned beer was first introduced to the American public, yellow, fizzy lagers and cream ales ruled the land. Names like Piels, Schlitz, Stroh’s, Ballantine and Genesee, to name a few, carved out a considerable niche on liquor store shelves, at local watering holes, and at the ballgame.

Over time, the “big three”—Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors—got in on the canning craze and pushed more product via aluminum than ever thought imaginable. (Thanks in large part to the macrobreweries, 55 percent of the beer produced in the United States today comes in a can.)

Some 80 years later, cans are taking the world of craft beer by storm. While bottles have been the container of choice since the mid-1980s, upstart breweries like 21st Amendment, Oskar Blues and New Belgium have brought cans to the forefront. Local liquor stores and bars and restaurants are devoting more space to the aluminum cans, and even breweries that have long bottled are making the transition.

Cans Across America

Dr. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade association that promotes and protects small and independent breweries, spends a good portion of his time conducting large surveys on beer production. Watson says that while bottles are still the primary choice for a majority of craft breweries, can production has increased the past five years.

“In 2011 we calculated that craft volume was 2 percent cans, and in 2014 we estimated it at 10 percent,” Watson says. “Scanned data year-to-date has it closer to 15 percent of packaged volume.”

The numbers don’t lie—canned craft beer production is certainly on the rise. However, the numbers can also be deceiving. Yes, canned beer is up to 15 percent of overall craft volume, but bottles still reign supreme, with a nearly 60 percent share of the market.

“There are several reasons why bottled craft still dominates, beginning with the fact that a lot of the larger craft breweries have bottled beer for a long time, and continue to do so,” Watson says. “But canned beer is on the rise, and likely here to stay, now that perception has changed.”

What has changed perception? One reason is that most breweries now line their cans with a synthetic compound, thus reducing any kind of metallic aftertaste. Also, the aluminum cans protect beer from one of its most dangerous enemies: light. And, finally, the cans give breweries plenty of room to get creative with artistic logos and coloring.

Tim Matthews, head of brewing operations for Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colo., says the company cans all of its beers (and have since 2002) because “our passion for beer mingles with our other passions, like bikes and music and good food. As brewers, we love the cans, because we feel cans line up with those passions and allows us to further that creative spirit.”

Can-venience: Saving Space on the Shelf

From the Wilmington Riverfront to Trolley Square, there are plenty of bars and package stores across the city where craft cans have taken up prime placement. Venu Gaddamidi, owner of Veritas Wine & Craft Beer on Justison Street, says that when he opened in 2009, he didn’t stock or sell much canned beer at all. Now, roughly 25 percent of his inventory is dedicated to canned craft.

“It’s amazing how the sales pitch went from ‘canned is crap’ to ‘canned is craft’ in such a short period of time,” Gaddamidi says. “It’s great, because I can stack more inventory in a limited amount of space, and the cans really move quickly. People like the idea of grabbing a light six-pack and tubing down the Brandywine or going on a bike ride, instead of hauling a heavier six-pack of glass bottles, which carry the risk of breaking.”

Across town at Kelly’s Logan House, every Wednesday—as has been the case for four years now—customers can take part in the weekly “Can Jam.” For just $3 a pop, craft lovers have their choice of canned craft beer. General Manager Tim Crowley says Kelly’s started offering more craft nearly five years ago, for several reasons.

“We felt that most products held up better for the consumer. After all, light is the death of many a fine beer,” Crowley says. “Storing and stocking canned beer is also more convenient, as they take up less real estate and allow us to offer more options. From a brewery standpoint, cans open up additional marketing idea options; it’s difficult to differentiate yourself with a neon green bottle, but you sure can make a cool can.”

Breweries that have long resisted canning—most notably Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, Calif., and Dogfish Head Brewery here in Delaware—have also decided to make the move. Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione always had a “never say never” attitude on canning, whereas Lagunitas owner Tony Magee said he’d can on the “12th of never.”

But, both have come to the conclusion that now is the time to can, and so the “12th of Never Ale” from Lagunitas is already available in Delaware, and the 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head is due in the can this fall.

Taking the Plunge

Sam Calagione has been bottling the 60 Minute IPA, his flagship beer, for nearly 20 years. The logo on the brown bottle is essentially an icon in craft beer circles, but after careful consideration and research, Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute will arrive in cans come November.
“Cans are here to stay, I think that’s safe to say. The technology has advanced in terms of canning equipment,” Calagione says. “There’s also no longer that metallic taste people associate with canned beer.”

One of the more popular can liners responsible for the absence of that metallic aftertaste is BPA, or Bisphenol A, an organic synthetic compound used to make plastics and epoxy resins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned its use in the production of baby bottles, but says trace amounts aren’t harmful.

Gaddamidi, who worked in pharmaceutical sales before opening Veritas, says the evidence denouncing BPA is more anecdotal than empirical. Studies have been done, he says, but the concern is more related to children than adults.

“Children are more susceptible to issues like this, as their immune systems are still developing,” Gaddamidi says. “You can read up on which breweries are using BPA, and even where they are mining their aluminum, but it’s not something to be overly concerned about.”

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, says his understanding of the health impacts of BPA is related to body weight and endocrine disruption, but that the compound passes through the body so quickly, it isn’t much of a health concern.

“We are not scientists, and the science does not always agree, so it’s difficult to know how to best advise members beyond FDA guidance,” says Gatza. “While the FDA is not concerned about small amounts, many craft brewers are following research into can liners without BPA (BPA non-intent, or BPANI), as a way to meet beer drinker expectations. We should know more in 2017.”

In the meantime, more breweries are going with aluminum for both financial and environmental reasons. Jon Sipes, New Belgium’s “Delaware Beer Ranger,” says aluminum beats bottles in three different categories.

“The average aluminum can is made from about 30-40 percent recycled aluminum, and aluminum cans are the most recyclable package worldwide,” Sipes says. “Cans also use a fraction of energy to produce, ship, and recycle, compared to glass, and it takes less energy to cool down a can, so you can pop the top and enjoy quicker.”

Whether or not aluminum cans cool faster is up for debate. Watson says there’s no evidence or study to prove such a theory, though it seems to make sense. Regardless, he says choosing aluminum or bottle can depend on the situation or occasion.

“Cans make sense in the summertime; you’re outdoors, they’re lighter,” Watson says. “You might not want to sit at a meal by a fire in the winter with a can of beer. But right now, it’s all about perception.”
Whatever your preferred vessel, the perception of canned beer is changing. Cans no longer carry the stigma of poor taste or lower quality. And the more the popular craft breweries step up and commit to the can, the better off beer drinkers will be.

Riding a Wave of Sudsy Success

Heavy Seas, one of Baltimore’s best craft beer producers, has taken Delaware by storm

Unfortunately for craft beer lovers, not every IPA, porter or Belgian sour produced in the world—or even our own Mid-Atlantic backyard—makes its way to the Delaware market. And those that do find a landing spot at your local watering hole sometimes get eaten up by the competition, much like the sugars that are devoured by yeast in the brewing process.

But just because the first attempt isn’t a success doesn’t mean a second effort shouldn’t be launched. After all, brewing beer requires a lot of trial and error, because not every brew that comes out of the fermenter is a gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival.

For Heavy Seas, trial, error and eventual success in the Delaware market spanned roughly a decade. After attempting to crack the First State open in 1997—and exiting just a few years later—the Baltimore-based brewery re-branded itself (from Clipper City), expanded its capacity, and began making its mark on the local beer scene around 2010.

Today, Heavy Seas is one of the more prominent regional breweries featured at liquor stores and restaurants in Delaware. And with the recent advent of its collaborative Partner Ships series, Heavy Seas continues to ride a wave of sudsy success.

Better the Second Time Around

Hugh Sisson has been working in the brewing business for more than 25 years, initially as Maryland’s first pub brewer from 1989 to 1994, then as the founder of Clipper City Brewing Co. In all that time, he says a couple of things have helped him stay sane through the ebbs and flows of craft beer popularity.

“First off, I never lost my sense of humor, which is important, considering the hits you take as a small business owner,” he says. “And you must have a good grip on numbers, to ensure that you make it over the long haul and sustain yourself in this industry.”

Both of these traits came into play in the early 2000s, when Sisson decided, after a short run, to pull his beers from the Delaware market. After a decade of consistent growth, Heavy Seas returned in 2010, followed by an influx of capital, and expansion of the brewery.

“Since we’ve come back, our Delaware business has grown at a pretty nice clip,” says Sisson. “We had a 90 percent growth rate in 2015, and I think that really speaks to the affinity for craft beer in Delaware. Our big focus is the Delmarva Peninsula, so being able to dial it up in areas like the Delaware beaches and farther north in Wilmington and Newark is key for us.”

Mike Slattery, owner of The Delaware Growler in Newark, knows the Heavy Seas lineup as well as anyone. As an employee of Standard Distributing, which handles all Heavy Seas beers in Delaware, Slattery got a firsthand taste of how Heavy Seas went from dealing with supply issues, to meeting growing demand, to their current state of widespread availability.

“Their brands were always popular and at times difficult to get,” says Slattery. “Once they were readily available, though, they began to gain momentum. The Loose Cannon IPA has been a flagship and their most recognizable beer, but the seasonals are always heavily sought after.”

When Head Brewer Chris Leonard arrived in 2013, Heavy Seas increased production by about 15 percent. An upgraded brew house in late 2014 also enabled the company to increase production from 36,000 barrels to 44,000 barrels in 2015. Leonard says a more consistent product flow has helped meet demand and develop new retail avenues.

“When I came on, Hugh had made a plan to try and serve the rest of our backyard, geographically speaking,” says Leonard. “We’ve purchased new tanks and upgraded our bottling line, and have been able to produce the same quality beers, which is the most important factor.”

Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City Brewing, leads a brewery tour. (Photo courtesy of Heavy Seas Beer)
Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City Brewing, leads a brewery tour. (Photo courtesy of Heavy Seas Beer)

Collaborative Craft Through the Partner Ships

Leonard has been brewing beer for more than 20 years now, including the bulk of his career as brewmaster at the General Lafayette Inn outside Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he was introduced to the idea of collaborating with other breweries and brewers.

“I love it, because it’s an opportunity to get to know the other brewers and how they operate,” says Leonard. “It’s a chance for our brewers to pick the brains of other breweries, see where we can play off each other’s strengths, and it benefits the customer with a new seasonal or one-off.”

Thus far in the Partner Ships series, which began earlier this year, Heavy Seas has joined forces with Maine Beer Company to produce a Red IPA, Stone Brewing for a Brown IPA, Troegs Brewing Company for a hoppy bock beer called “Hoppelbock,” and up next, the Rye Wit with Terrapin Brewing Company, out of Athens, Ga.

Brewing Team Leader Henry Jager says he wanted to follow the traditional witbier recipe, which includes spices like coriander and fruit such as bitter orange (Hoegaarden is the classic example), but naturally, he wanted to make it their own. The addition of rye and several varieties of American hops and a secondary fermentation in white wine barrels makes for an interesting result.

“A little bit of white wine, rye, wood, orange, coriander and grapefruit, along with Cascade, Amarillo and Saaz complementing each other and the beer as a whole, made for a nice finished product,” says Jager. “It’s not too hopped up, but there’s just enough to let you know it’s there without being a distraction.”

At his Main Street shop, Slattery sells several Heavy Seas beers on draft and in bottles. He applauds the Partner Ships series, which, like many breweries of late, links Heavy Seas with other breweries to create a series of collaborative beers.

“I’m looking forward to the release of the Rye Wit as the next beer in the line of Partner Ships series, which has brought a lot of excitement to the brand,” says Slattery. “It’s aged in white wine barrels for 16 weeks, with the addition of coriander, bitter and sweet orange peel, and grapefruit peel. It’s a creative balance that’s sure to be a hit and sell out quickly.”

Nick Slemko, an assistant general manager in charge of the beer list at Ulysses Gastropub in North Wilmington, has been fortunate enough to try all three Partner Ships beers so far. “I wish we could have all their Partner Ships beers on extensively, but when we get them, they go quickly,” says Slemko. “Really, though, we stock beer according to what will sell, and Heavy Seas beers are easy to sell.”

In addition to The Delaware Growler, the Rye Wit—as well as many other Heavy Seas beers—will be available at ABC Liquors in Bear, Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, Kreston’s in both Middletown and Wilmington, Total Wine in Milltown and Claymont and Atlantic Liquors in Rehoboth Beach.

60 Years of Subs & Steaks

Casapulla & Sons started on Labor Day, 1956. They’ve been laboring over their legendary sandwiches ever since.

Opening and running a successful family business takes more than capital, knowhow and the cooperation of siblings, aunts and uncles. It requires skilled employees, customer service that outshines the competition, and a little serendipity along the way.

The odds are daunting. According to the Small Business Administration, just over half of small businesses survive more than five years, and about a third of them survive for more than 10 years. The numbers dwindle from there.

But for Casapulla & Sons, the legendary sub shop that has served the town of Elsmere for six decades, the numbers don’t tell the whole history. Their story, of an Italian immigrant who started a small grocery store that grew to one of Delaware’s best-known eateries, is one that spans 60 years and a whole lot of sandwiches.

A Delaware Institution

Luigi Casapulla emigrated from Caserta, Italy, in the 1920s, and some 30 years later, after starting a family, he decided to open a small “corner store” just north of Kirkwood Highway in Elsmere. Before long, due to competition from neighboring supermarkets, Casapulla decided to switch gears and offer submarine sandwiches.

Luigi’s son Lou Casapulla has been there for every year of business, and has seen it all. He began working at the shop at age 13, when he would cut rolls and slice deli meat after school, and he still opens the shop most days. He even remembers the first day they opened for business.

“I remember it was Labor Day of 1956, because I’ve always said, ‘We opened on Labor Day and we’ve been laboring ever since,’” says Casapulla, sipping a Miller Lite after finishing his prep work on a warm July Wednesday afternoon. Laughing, he explains that he only indulges in a beer at work after he’s clocked out. And anyway, as he says, “I mean, I can’t get fired.”

From the first day, Casapulla says, the business has been all about consistently offering top quality products at a fair price, while engaging with the community it serves. He’s made countless friends over the years, including a certain Italian lady who, along with her husband, also made their mark on the local deli landscape.

“I remember—and this is gospel—that Lois Margoloet used to come in here probably twice a week,” says Casapulla. “After she opened Capriotti’s in 1976, a reporter asked why she and her husband went into business, and she said she got tired of having to drive to Elsmere for a sandwich at Casapulla’s!”

He says that since the day the store opened, the Italian sub has been the most popular sandwich, and that he’s “probably prepped and made thousands” in his time behind the counter. While business has slowed a bit over the years, many of the same loyal customers still visit more than once a week.

Annlynn Casapulla Scalia, granddaughter of Luigi and niece of Lou, says she’s seen some of the same faces on the other side of the counter since she started working at the shop in 1977. Back then, things were a little different.

“I remember my grandfather told me to just keep my head down and keep making sandwiches during the lunch hour,” says Scalia, finishing a Wednesday lunch rush. “But you couldn’t help share a laugh with some of the regulars, or ask them how they were doing, or how their mom or dad were holding up. It’s a neighborhood spot, so it always felt natural.”

One of those longtime customers is David Baylor, who today has stopped in for one of his favorites, the Casapulla’s cheesesteak. Baylor, a retired Delaware state trooper, has been eating at Casapulla’s for about 50 years, and loves the place and the family that runs it.

Lou prepares tomatoes for the day's sandwiches (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Lou prepares tomatoes for the day’s sandwiches (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

“When I was in the Navy, I served in Virginia Beach, Pensacola, San Antonio; no matter where I was stationed, when I was on leave, this is the first place I visited when I returned home,” says Baylor. “I think people’s tastes change, but this place doesn’t. It’s been consistently good and had the same great flavors for years— probably a big reason why I keep coming back.”

Before heading out of the shop, Baylor gives Lou a bear hug and thanks him for another delicious sandwich. “This place really is like family to me. It’s my go-to spot; it’s an institution.”

Baylor says he’s become like a Casapulla family member himself. In fact, his daughter, Sydney, works at the Glasgow location.

The Family Franchise

You’ll find six Casapulla’s sandwich shops from North Wilmington to Rehoboth, and every one is family-owned, not a franchise. According to Lou, if there was ever any interest in expanding farther in Delaware or past its borders (a la Capriotti’s), tradition demands that a family member would have to be at the helm.

David Casapulla has been serving sandwiches at Casapulla’s North on Concord Pike since he opened the doors in 1992. He has fond memories of training under his grandfather, Luigi, and the two put in a lot of hours together. The family aspect has always been important to the Casapulla crew, and David continues the tradition at his own store.
“When I went out on my own about 25 years ago, I wanted to keep going a lot of the good from the original store,” says David. “So we took care of every single person that walked through our doors. Over the years, three of my kids have worked here, including my daughter, Rachel, and my son, David II, who work here now.”

Come Labor Day weekend, the staff at the original Casapulla’s plans on partying with their own extended family of relatives, friends and community members. They will have tents outside the location in Elsmere, lots of homemade food on hand, even live entertainment. And of course they’ll also be making plenty of sandwiches.

Fruity Beers: Fun Summer Drinking

Citrus is dominating. The experts explain why.

The idea of adding fruit to beer—whether in the mash, during secondary fermentation, or right down the neck of the bottle after cracking a cold one—is nothing new. The Germans and Belgians have been making fruit-infused beer for centuries, Sam Adams has produced its Cherry Wheat since the late 1980s, and even the most milquetoast beer drinkers like a little lime in their Corona.

But more recently, particularly during the American IPA explosion the craft industry has experienced over the last decade, citrus has begun to separate itself from the bunch.

Bananas, cherries and even the beloved pumpkins have taken a back seat to grapefruit, lemon and tangerine.

Citrus is especially noticeable in craft cans and bottles, and that’s because, according to most professionals, certain American hops—most notably Amarillo, Cascade, Citra and Willamette—have a more citrus-like flavor and aroma than some of their piney cousins.

We caught up with those professionals to talk about their favorite citrus-centric beers in anticipation of the sweltering summer months ahead.

Grapefruit at Grain

Jim O’Donoghue, co-owner at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark, has long been a fan of fruit-infused beers. He believes part of the reason for the steady success of craft beer is the approachable nature and flavors of fruit beers.

“I’m a fan of anything that allows people to try different beers and get out of their comfort zone a little,” says O’Donoghue. “The IPA makers are really going all in on fruit, especially citrus, and I think people are more willing to try something new when there’s some familiarity there. They might not understand the difference between one hop varietal and another, but mention orange and lemon, and they take notice.”

One of O’Donoghue’s favorite citrus-flavored IPAs is the Evil Genius Turtle Power, which goes heavy on the grapefruit, but is balanced with some sweetness and tart flavors. The dry finish is refreshing, he says, and the citrus helps keep drinkers somewhat hydrated during the warm months.

“I feel like lemon can be a little tart and orange can be a little sweet, but grapefruit is just right,” says O’Donoghue. Later this summer, Grain will feature the Turtle Power on tap, as well as Otter Creek’s Citra Mantra, and the Green Flash Passion Fruit Kicker, with notes of passion fruit, grapefruit and clementine.

O’Donoghue is looking forward to having an influx of citrus beers on tap and in cans and bottles to complement summer menu items like Grain’s tempura lobster, crab and watermelon arugula salad, and the citrus avocado salad, which O’Donoghue says “couldn’t make more sense to pair with a citrus beer.”

Citrus on Tap at Chelsea

Matt Foran, a manager at Chelsea Tavern on Market Street in Wilmington, loves the citrusy IPAs because they’re basically the opposite of the popular piney, sometimes bitter IPAs on the market. While hopheads might debate that bitter is better, Foran believes citrus pairs more naturally with food.

“In general, citrus-noted hops accentuate the flavors in food, if paired correctly,” he says.

“It’s definitely a market that has been growing, and I think it’s because fruit-forward beers tend to be more appealing as palates change. It’s a more enjoyable flavor profile than the ultra-bitter beer.”

Foran cites New Belgium’s Citradelic as a prime example of an IPA with citrus appeal, with its blend of hoppy bite and tangerine sweetness. He is also a big fan of the Belgian witbiers (white ales), with notes of orange and coriander, including Harpoon’s UFO White and Otter Creek’s Fresh Slice. And although it’s not a citrus fruit, Foran also loves the wheat beers, blonde ales and IPAs infused with watermelon.

“21st Amendment really started the movement with their Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, but now watermelon is everywhere,” he says. His current favorites include the New Belgium Heavy Melon, a blonde ale with watermelon and lime, and the 16 Mile Seed-Free & Joy, both of which he plans on having at Chelsea this summer.

“That 16 Mile beer is great; they add 200 pounds of fresh watermelon to the boil. You get the full flavor of the rinds and the fruit. It’s a delicious beer,” says Foran. Orange-ish beers like the Uinta Hop Nosh Tangerine IPA, another one of his favorites, will also be on tap.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Gose

Get Greg Safian started on fruit beers—from citrus IPAs to Belgian sours—and he can spend an evening or afternoon discussing them at Trolley Tap House in Wilmington. In fact, the craft beer specialist can talk your ear off about nearly any style. As for the “fruity beers,” he’s appreciative—if they’re done right.

“We’ve come a long way since Seadog Blueberry wheat ale and Leinenkugel shandys,” Safian says. “Those are decent beers, but the options we have now are much better. There are certainly styles that warrant it, and some breweries stretch it. Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

One that Safian says works is the TropiCannon from Heavy Seas in Baltimore. A very fruit-forward IPA at 7.2 percent, it features notes of grapefruit, orange and lemon peel. “It tastes like candied orange and grapefruit right up front,” he says. “They really went for it on this one and didn’t tiptoe around the citrus.”

He is also a big fan of a style of beer called the “gose” (pronounced, go-suh), which originated in 16th century Germany and has seen a recent renaissance. Safian says the style traditionally has a lemony tartness and slightly sour aftertaste, and sometimes contains a bit of salt.

“The Kirsch Gose, from Victory, is a solid one,” he says. “It has a kind of sour cherry punch to it, and I think the style is going to be one of the more popular beers this summer. The gose’s popularity has turned into quite the movement. It’s a versatile beer, in terms of food pairing, and is quite refreshing.”

The Brewers Weigh In

Brian Finn, senior head brewer for Iron Hill, could see the fruited IPA trend coming a mile away, calling it “an explosion of fruited and spiced IPAs, with grapefruit being the biggest fruit flavor to be used.” He even brewed a grapefruit Hefeweizen, or wheat beer, last summer.

“Our Summer Crush was amazingly well received last year,” says Finn. “There are a ton out there, though, with Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin being one of the best sellers, I imagine. With all the flavors in the citrusy American hops, it was only a matter of time.”

Finn says Iron Hill is planning to take another stab at the citrus market this summer, with the release of their Grapefruit Riverfront IPA in late June. The 6.7 percent ABV ale will feature fresh grapefruit juice in the recipe, and is essentially a fruity take on Iron Hill’s Riverfront IPA, a house beer available at all locations.

Down at Stewart’s Brewing Company in Bear, Head Brewer Ric Hoffman is generally not a huge fan of the fruited beers, and hence doesn’t brew many of them. He knows they’re “all the rage these days,” and does annually brew one cult favorite, Monkey Love.

“It’s basically our very popular Stumblin’ Monk (a Belgian strong ale) that’s re-fermented with raspberries,” says Hoffman. “It’s bright red, with over a pound-and-a-half of fruit per barrel, and an ABV of 9.2 percent. We’ve probably been making it for a decade and people really like it.”
While the 9.2 ABV falls on the higher side and might prohibit long stints of summertime drinking, most fruited IPAs fall in the 4 to 7 percent range. The combination of a lower alcohol content and hydration and vitamin properties of the citrus make for some perfect warm weather imbibing.

The Mexican Beer Movement

Brands from south of the border continue to grow in popularity. And not only during Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Among many liquor storeowners and bartenders there is a topic of debate that beer geeks may find hard to believe: While craft beer is still immensely popular and the options therein are limitless, has it reached a point of market oversaturation after three decades, and will that kill off a good portion of the herd?

It’s not a debate that can be settled over a few pints, but one point everyone can agree on: There is a specific portion of the market that continues to grow, year after year, despite not having the words “craft,” “India Pale Ale,” or “microbrewery” attached to the brands.

That sector is Mexican beers, including classics like Tecate, Dos Equis and Pacifico, and especially Corona Extra and Modelo Especial, which now sit at Nos. 5 and 9, respectively, in terms of beer sales in the United States. And as everyone prepares for Cinco de Mayo and the warm, lighter beer-drinking months, those popular light lagers show no signs of giving up their market share.

In fact, according to Beer Institute, a trade association for the American brewing industry out of Washington, D.C., Constellation Brands—which owns the four brands mentioned above, as well as Corona Light, Negra Modelo and Modelo Especial Chelado—saw a 20 percent increase in sales in February alone.

In Delaware, Tecate sales are up 53 percent, says Tim Schuler, marketing manager at Standard Distributing. “The Mexican beer market is hot, so much so that [craft icon] Oskar Blues has introduced a beer to take advantage of it.”

So why are Mexican beers like Modelo Especial, Corona, Tecate and Dos Equis still growing? Part of it has to do with the ability to corner the market because most beer drinkers think of the big brand names when it comes to Mexican products.

But Joe Rapposelli, a Brand Development manager at NKS Distributors in New Castle, believes the reason is a little more nuanced, in two ways. First, Rapposelli says the drinkability and relative inexpensive cost drives consumers to the beers. Second, he says, there is a continuing uptick in the Latino population in Delaware.

“These are good, crisp, light beers that people want to drink this time of the year, instead of loading up on high-alcohol IPAs and the like,” says Rapposelli. “But also, we’re not only seeing an increase in the overall Latino population in Delaware, but also a major population boom in the legal age group of 21.”

According to a November 2014 story in The News Journal, Delaware’s Hispanic population will grow the fastest of all demographics, and by 2060 it will double to about 16 percent in farm-rich Sussex County, with similar results forecast for New Castle and Kent counties.

Whether or not Latinos reaching the age of 21 choose the beer their parents and aunts and uncles may have drunk is up for debate, depending on where you look. At Hockessin Liquors, though, where many migrant workers employed at mushroom farms in the Kennett Square area buy their beer, Mexican brands are through the roof.

“With all the Mexican workers at the mushroom farms, and us being right here by the border, we sell a lot of Mexican beers, mostly Corona and Modelo,” says Luis Sedano, store manager at Hockessin Liquors. “I don’t think it has anything to do with age here, because we see all kinds of ages looking for lighter beers they can drink. But I can tell you we go through a ton of those two beers.”

Rapposelli says NKS typically delivers 700 cases of Modelo Especial each week to Hockessin Liquors, as well as kegs of Corona and Modelo to local restaurants like the Mexican Post on Concord Pike. There, General Manager Tony George sometimes feels as if he can’t keep up with the demand.

“Maybe it’s because we’re a Mexican restaurant, but we sell more Dos Equis and Negra Modelo on draft than anything else,” says George. “And we always have an IPA on draft and a few in bottles, but the imports sell here. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that those beers pair better with our food. No one wants to have a big meal of burritos or nachos and then wash it down with a heavy, big-calorie IPA.”

Venu Gaddamidi, owner of Veritas Wine & Craft Beer in Wilmington, agrees that drinking a fully loaded IPA on a 95-degree day isn’t exactly ideal. As for the notion that members of the Hispanic community now reaching legal age are brand-loyal, well, that’s another matter.

“As a second generation Indian living in this country, I spend more money in bars and restaurants than my parents, and I have to believe that second generation Hispanics do the same,” says Gaddamidi. “Corona and Modelo are staples that any segment would drink, whether you’re really into craft or are from some corner of Alabama where PBR and Yuengling might be considered high-end.”

At his shop, Gaddamidi features one specific line of Mexican craft, Day of the Dead. The Mexican line of craft ales and lagers is produced by Cerveceria Mexicana, located just an hour east of Tijuana. Its artistic labels are dedicated to Dia de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico.

“I carry an IPA from their lineup and the Chocolati Stout, which came through very well, even though they might not be terribly popular,” says Gaddamidi. “They’re Mexican beers, sure, but I stock them because I like them, not necessarily because they’re Mexican.”
No matter what your heritage, this month is a perfect time to try a Mexican beer, as local bars and restaurants celebrate Cinco de Mayo on Thursday, May 5, through that weekend.

Whatever your taste—the lighter Corona or Modelo Especial, the more amber Negra Modelo or Victoria, or craft like Day of the Dead—the options are plentiful. And it looks like they’ll continue to grow in popularity for the foreseeable future.

Wilmington’s Welcoming Watering Holes

And don’t call them dives

It’s both plain and easy to see that the current landscape of bars and restaurants in Delaware is growing by the month. Someone always seems to be announcing plans to expand, open a second location, reinvent themselves, or gut the old place and make it new again.

While that’s all well and good, there’s something to be said for the old-school joints dripping with history and character, instead of craft beer lists and customer appreciation clubs.

Wilmington boasts a trio of such haunts—all in a relatively small pocket on the edge of town. Mulrooney’s Tavern, Comegys Pub and the Jackson Inn all have been around longer than most of their patrons have been drinking adult beverages. And according to the bartenders who work there and the loyalists who belly up to those bars, there aren’t any plans to fix what ain’t broke.

DSC_2584
Joe Quill serving you a pint of Guinness at Mulrooney’s Tavern. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Luck of the Irish at Mulrooney’s Tavern

Stand outside the McDonald’s that borders Elsmere and Wilmington, and you’ll see most cars zipping by, accelerating from the speed limit of 25 to 35 miles per hour once they get past the city limits. Heading south, almost where the overpass begins to cut it off from view, stands Mulrooney’s, a watering hole serving locals since 1943.

Out front is a simple package store, but behind that sits a bar where a thirsty drinker can get a beer as early as 9 a.m. Joe Quill, a St. Elizabeth’s High School grad who bought the tavern in 1997, says despite what some people might think from the outside, Mulrooney’s is not a dive bar.

“I always considered a dive bar as a pick-up bar or a sleazy place, and believe me, there used to be plenty of spots like that around here,” says Quill. “I think the reason we’ve survived is because we’re not a dive bar—not by the original standards, at least. This is a friendly place where the regulars will talk and debate about all sorts of stuff at the bar, but still respect each other.”

Brian Mulrooney, son of Hubert Mulrooney, who originally purchased the bar during World War II, echoes Quill. He says it was his father’s strict Irish background that let customers know his place was a nice bar to visit, but that riff-raff wouldn’t be tolerated.
“My dad always ran a tight ship, and I think the clientele always appreciated that, because they knew they could come here for a few pints and still feel safe,” says the 73-year-old Mulrooney, who began tending bar at age 21 and still works a few shifts each week.

Despite being a neighborhood bar with a package store attached, Mulrooney’s serves food in the dining room, which is drenched in green. Bar snacks, sandwiches and plenty of seafood, courtesy of Samuels & Son in Philadelphia, make up a three-page menu.
“Oh yeah, we got a waitstaff, full kitchen and everything,” says Quill. “I never wanted to put pool tables in, or take the kitchen out, because I felt like that would have brought in the wrong crowd. But we get a good bunch of people that come in for dinner, especially on the weekends.”

As for what has kept Mulrooney’s in business, even after Quill bought the joint almost 20 years ago, Mulrooney says it’s tough to pinpoint. “From my perspective, the money has always been good and the people are nice,” he says. “It sounds simple, I know, but you’d be amazed by how much people appreciate the idea of a neighborhood bar where they can go and just be themselves.”

Chris Henretty, who has 20 years at Comegys, serves (front to back) Bird Pagan, Louie Ortez, Pete Ortiz, Shannan Josephson, Glen Thompson and Jeff Sifford. (Photo by Fred Comegys)
Chris Henretty, who has 20 years at Comegys, serves (front to back) Bird Pagan, Louie
Ortez, Pete Ortiz, Shannan Josephson, Glen Thompson and Jeff Sifford.
(Photo by Fred Comegys)

Comegys=Cheers?

Imagine working as a photographer for the same local newspaper for 50 years. You’ve taken photos of heads of state, celebrities and professional athletes. You’ve captured images of burning buildings and victims in tears, as well as the joyous faces of countless high school athletes.

And yet, when your name is entered in a Google search, the top result is a neighborhood bar.

Such is the not-so-sorry lot of Fred Comegys, who, nearly three decades ago, along with his two brothers, purchased the pub that still stands on the corner of 3rd and Union streets. It’s there, particularly on Tuesday nights, that loyal patrons will find him, shooting the breeze with just about anyone who walks in the door, while his daughter, Candace Ryan, serves drinks.

“Me and Mark and Randy were the Three Blind Mice—that was our logo—and it really couldn’t be closer to the truth,” says Comegys, who retired from The News Journal’s photo desk in 2012 after 53 years. “When we opened, we didn’t know anything about the bar business, and we still don’t.”

But what he lacks in mixology knowledge, he more than makes up for in people knowledge. There typically isn’t a man or woman who walks into his pub who doesn’t know Comegys’ work. If they’re unfamiliar with it, Ryan, who started tending bar there at age 21, will fill them in.

“Heck, all you have to do is look around the place and ask who shot the amazing photos hanging all over the walls,” she says of her dad’s work. The photojournalist’s shots—including legends like Johnny Cash and Allen Iverson—start at the front of the bar, continue past the jukebox, and go all the way to the back, where a shuffleboard table stands.

“I think the shuffleboard has always been a draw, and people love to drop some coins in the box and start dancing when the mood strikes,” says Ryan. “But I guess the main reason people come back—and people seek us out—is that it’s just friendly in here. People are nice to each other, have a good laugh, throw a few back, and that’s it.”

Chuck Biliski, a Wilmington resident, has been a patron for more than 35 years. A former city employee who lived in the 600 block of Union Street, Biliski first walked through the front door of what was then called Scotty’s for a New Year’s Eve party in 1971.

“There used to be bars up and down this side of Union, but most of them have gone away, but Fred’s still here because people come to see him,” says Biliski, who has regularly brought his own grill and cooked complimentary hot dogs and burgers for customers over the years. “It’s a family, it really is. I hate to make the comparison to ‘Cheers,’ but if people know your name, they’ll yell it as soon as you walk through the door. That’s kinda cool, if you ask me.”

Comegys and his brothers purchased the pub in July of 1988, mostly to serve as a public place where they would invite friends out for a drink, instead of having them over to their living rooms. “This has always been a neighborhood bar,” he says, “so we never had to get gimmicky with anything. I guess people appreciate that. I just appreciate our girls—Patty, Terry and Candace—who pretty much take care of everything around here and keep the ship running.”

Part of the neighborhood vibe includes a Wednesday night shuffleboard league, Sunday cookouts when the Phillies or Eagles are playing, and block parties during holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day. Ryan says the crowds can be totally different from week to week, but there are always enough regulars to keep the place familiar and friendly.

“There’s a reason I’ve been working here for 20-some years,” says Ryan. “Sure, I love spending time with my dad and all, but waiting on the people that come in here isn’t like most other jobs, or I would have left years ago. These people make work fun, and there really isn’t much more you can ask than that.”

Plenty of room at the Jackson Inn

One can hardly be blamed for passing the Jackson Inn on North DuPont Road and feeling a twinge of uncertainty about what goes on in the old bar. For starters, the sign in the back window that reads “Bates Motel: No Vacancy” is enough to scare off many passersby.

But inside there’s a feeling of stepping into someone’s living room—with a bar attached. There’s a certain homey feel to it, another great jukebox that rivals the one at Comegys Pub, a ton of banners and quirky posters hanging on the walls and ceilings, and booths and tables with tabletop lamps from days of old.

Owner Fred Bourdon, or “Freddy,” as he’s called by regulars, either tends bar or sits by the register and watches the regulars yuk it up. Though the sign out front says the place opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, it really depends on what time Bourdon feels like getting things going.

One constant guests can rely on at the Inn is the bi-monthly reading series, Second Saturday Poets, which takes place from 5-7 p.m. on—when else?—the second Saturday of every month. Second Saturday typically features guest poets ranging from beginners to the state laureate to nationally published writers, followed by an open mic session.

It’s that kind of quirky charm—blending the likes of Shakespeare’s sonnets with Budweiser’s bubbles—that keeps regulars like Mike Logothetis, a Newark native, coming back to “The J.I.,” as he calls it. Logothetis’ first trip to the Inn took place “sometime in the mid-2000s,” and he remembers being taken aback the moment he walked in the door.

“It’s kinda funky in there, and I mean that in a good way,” says Logothetis. “I remember thinking the draft beer selection was better than I expected, and it was friendlier than I imagined it would be. I guess it looks a little dingy from the outside, but inside there is such a warm, welcoming vibe. It’s a real throwback to the bars of old.”

Tanya Smith, a Wilmington resident who frequents the Inn, says the place is far enough removed from Trolley Square and Market Street that people can let their hair down. Upper class or middle class, businessperson or blue collar, they can all belly up with ease. “We went there on a random Friday night when (local band) The Cameltones were playing, and it was packed; everyone was goofing off and it was a real liquored-up crowd,” says Smith. “It’s where rich people go to act like idiots—I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

And if a “liquored-up idiot” should find that his cell phone has died while he was hanging out, making a call for a ride home isn’t a problem. What may be Wilmington’s last pay phone hangs on the wall, and it’s in working order. Heck, it’s the phone Bourdon answers if someone calls the Jackson Inn, day or night.

By car, Mulrooney’s, Comegys and the Jackson Inn are easily accessible—only a total of two miles and about eight minutes separates the three establishments. But combined, they offer a long history of good times and laughs, a history of serving Wilmington’s drinkers responsibly and well for decades.

New Eateries Abound Throughout the County

Hope springs eternal in the traditionally tough restaurant business. Witness the slew of new eateries cropping up in New Castle County, from Trolley Square in Wilmington to Four Corners in Smyrna. Some have undergone major makeovers, while others have simply changed their name and approach. Here’s a tour of what’s new and improved on the restaurant scene.

Merchant on Market

Since opening their doors in the summer of 2013, Bryan Sikora and wife Andrea Loconti have experienced continued success at La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro. But when it came to having a bar where patrons could hang out until late in the evening, the 5th and Market location just didn’t have the space.

Enter Merchant Bar, La Fia’s sister bar and restaurant, located just across the street. Loconti says their new venture was made possible when their landlord took possession of the building at 426 N. Market and invited them to rent the space.

“We’ve been looking for more space to accommodate a bar crowd almost since the beginning at La Fia,” says Loconti. “When this opportunity arose, we jumped on it. Now our La Fia crowd can spill across the street to Merchant.”

She also says Merchant Bar will keep its doors open until 11 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends—late closings that can be hard to find on Market Street. Merchant will focus on classic cocktails with a contemporary twist, and lots of specialty smoked meats and housemade sausages.

“Bryan is very skilled at making sausage, so we will be grinding our own meats and making our own casings, as well as baking our own breads, of course,” says Loconti. “Our cocktails will feature recipes we’ve developed for the Old Fashioned, Sazerac and sloe gin fizz, and all our liquor will be call and premium brands.”

The menu currently features a Bar Snacks section, with $6 small plates like marinated olives with hummus and red and gold pickled beets, while the Breads & Buns section features a house-smoked Chicago Dog ($12). The smoked hot dog is topped with pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, mustard and spicy peppers.

Loconti says their smoker will be used to create a number of dishes in hopes of catering to a younger crowd later in the evening. Merchant Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 4 p.m., and will have live music and DJs on the weekends.

A Touch of Creole Comes to Union Street

Fans of the upstairs bar at the old Pan Tai, 837 N. Union St., can finally return to their old haunt, now called North Quarter Creole. That group of fans includes co-owners Mike Goodwin and Brady Harris, who used to hang out quite a bit at the bar overlooking Union.

“I used to love this location when it was Pan Tai, and the former owners had a good business going here for years,” says Goodwin, former chef and owner of CP Goodwin’s on Kirkwood Highway. “I really thought the neighborhood was starving for someone to take it over; we’re local and we care about the building, the customers, and the product we put out.”

Since opening in November, Goodwin and Harris say the neighborhood has welcomed the addition of another restaurant destination on Union Street, especially since their cuisine—a crossover of southern and Creole—presents something new to the strip.

“Some of the recipes I learned from my grandmother, cooking in her kitchen as a kid, but we also wanted to include a bit of our Irish heritage in the place as well,” says Goodwin. “We visited New Orleans and found an Irish district of bars there, so we decided to run with it.”

The lunch and dinner menus include Cajun/Creole standards like gumbo, muffuletta and etouffee, while at the bar Irish whiskey fans can find a great selection of Jameson’s line of aged whiskeys for sipping. North Quarter Creole is open seven days a week, beginning at 11:30 a.m. for lunch.

Big Fish Restaurant Group Gets Even Bigger

Once just a single restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Big Fish has expanded to Glen Mills, Pa., and the Wilmington Riverfront. This year, brothers Eric and Norman Sugrue look to venture into Trolley Square, as well as expand on the Riverfront.

This month, the restaurateurs will open the Trolley Square Oyster House in the former Satsuma Asian fusion restaurant, which closed in January. Eric Sugrue says they will focus on what has earned them success to the tune of nearly 10 restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic over the years: quality seafood.

“Simple seafood, really good crab cakes, lots of sandwiches and salads, that’s our plan for the menu at Trolley Square Oyster House,” says Sugrue. “Oh, and oysters, naturally. We’ll have a rotation of five to seven oysters on at all times, from various parts of the country, as well as a lot of different raw bar items.”

While Satsuma was still open for business, rumors had circulated that Sikar Lounge, a cigar bar just a block away on North DuPont Street, would eventually inhabit the second floor of the building. Sugrue dispels those rumors, however, saying that the Trolley Square Oyster House will include both floors, as well as the outdoor bar.

Aesthetically speaking, the restaurant group has made a lot of changes, including a new paint scheme of different shades of blue and natural wood colors, as well as new floors and fixtures. No walls have been torn down, but a raw bar will replace the old sushi bar from Satsuma.

On the Riverfront, many visitors may have seen a sign for “Taco Grande” in the vacant lot between Big Fish and Iron Hill. Sugrue says a general contractor will be hired once plans are finished for what will be a casual Tex-Mex restaurant.

“We hope to get things started in terms of construction in the next two months, and then hopefully open in November,” says Sugrue. “The place will be smaller than Big Fish, but will still feature an outside bar and seating, and an open-air kitchen. And of course, margaritas will be a big part of what we do with the bar, both inside and out.”

Chef Patrick Bradley serving up a steak at Tonic Bar & Grille.
Chef Patrick Bradley serving up a steak at Tonic Bar & Grille. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Tonic Takes over at Deep Blue

After 17 years in business, Chef Dan Butler knew it was time for a change. So he brought on a silent partner and went to work on what is now a bustling little downtown joint called Tonic Bar & Grille. Stop in for happy hour most nights or acoustic music on the weekends at the old Deep Blue location, 111 W. 11th St.

So far, says Butler, “It’s been phenomenal. It’s rewarding when you do the hard work and create something new, and the buzz is created, and then it’s validated.” Butler also owns and runs Piccolina Toscana in Trolley Square and Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, Pa. “Our goal now is to be consistent with all our guests, so that they know what to expect when they come here.”

What guests can expect is a menu that’s not quite steakhouse, but features a good selection of prime beef and chops, as well as some holdovers from the beloved Deep Blue. According to Butler, one of his primary challenges over the years at Deep Blue was that diners thought it was a seafood-only restaurant.

“I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into the idea of being a ‘steakhouse’ and what that represents, because we really have put together a menu that appeals to all tastes,” he says. “We’ve even kept the tuna tartare appetizer and five-spice tuna entree for diehard Deep Blue fans.”

The dining room now features more subdued tones like shades of grays and browns, and has a more intimate atmosphere, with areas separated by dividers. Quiet spaces and dining areas for private parties and corporate dinners are now available. At the bar, the crowd is a bit livelier, and 15 TVs air big sporting events.

Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 4-7 p.m., and features $2 Miller Lite and Yuengling drafts, and a $6 bar food menu. Be sure to check out the revamped cocktail list, featuring the Dante’s Inferno ($10), made with vodka, muddled mint, blood orange puree, Hellfire bitters, lime juice, simple syrup and a splash of seltzer.

What’s Old is New Again at Salute Bistro & Bar

The old Limoncello Restaurant on Ogletown-Stanton Road in Newark is back in the former owner’s hands, and under a new name. Anthony Causi, who has more than 30 years in the Delaware restaurant industry, returns with co-owner Dave Patel, to head up Salute Bistro & Bar. As in the past, the focus is homemade Italian in a family-friendly atmosphere.

“Before we opened on January 7th, we remodeled the place, built a bar, changed the name, and put a lot of the original menu back in place, with a few changes,” says Causi. “It feels good to be back here, and I think a lot of familiar faces feel the same.”
Italian specialties, like sautéed broccoli rabe and sausage ($9), panzanella ($10) and brick oven pizzas ($10-$14) litter the menu. Happy hour takes place Monday through Friday, featuring $5 martinis and appetizers and $1 off all beers.

Metro in Middletown

Middletown added another gastropub to its growing restaurant landscape in mid-December when the Metro Pub & Grille opened just off Main Street at the Peachtree Station retail center. Designed to resemble the town’s old train station, complete with an industrial look with A-frame supports and warm, earthy tones, the new eatery features fresh and local menu items and craft beer on tap.

Longtime Wilmington diners will recognize a familiar face in the Metro Pub & Grill’s kitchen, where Executive Chef Patrick D’Amico, formerly of Harry’s Savoy Grille and Hotel du Pont’s Green Room, has taken the helm. D’Amico left Harry’s last year to join RM Hospitality Group, which includes Richard Clark, of Clark Construction, and Andrew Cofield, the pub’s general manager.

“Our goal here is to feature dishes that are always in season, keeping things fresh and local, both in the kitchen and behind the bar,” Cofield says. “Our signature cocktails will focus on bourbon, which is still big, and gin, which is on the rise. We also plan on implementing some different flavors in our house-made bitters, which will complement the seasonally changing menu.”

A 20-tap draft system and 50 wines by the glass and bottle will be catered to pair signature dishes like the wild boar Sloppy Joe ($13), dark rum-painted pork belly ($9.50), and venison chili ($8.50). There will be a rotating brunch menu on Sundays, and a Brooklyn Beer Dinner is in the works, according to Cofield. For a full look at the menu, go to metropubandgrill.com.

Smyrna Goes Upscale with a Brewpub

As the self-proclaimed “first casual upscale restaurant” in town, The Inn at Duck Creek brings farm-to-table and linen serviettes to the restored historical landmark at the Four Corners intersection of Smyrna. After months of renovations to the buildings at Main and Commerce streets (originally erected in the early 1700s), The Inn opened on Dec. 30.

Co-owner Howard Johnson spent years in the quick-service industry (think Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts) before partnering with Donna Ignasz, a finance and banking specialist for PNC. Johnson says the major challenge during the restoration process was dropping a restaurant and bar into a historical building while maintaining its charm and integrity.

“We had a choice to either tear down these buildings before they crumbled, or carefully restore things,” says Johnson. “With the help of [property owner] Edward Ide and i3a, an engineering and construction firm here in town, we were able to do the latter, and I think we will be rewarded for that effort in the long run.”

Set among four buildings at 2, 4, 6 and 8 Main Street, the Inn at Duck Creek boasts four dining rooms and a fifth private room on the third floor of the main building, as well as a 24-seat tavern and several fireplaces. At the bar, the shout-out to local craft is evident.

“We’re featuring the best that Smyrna has to offer at the bar, including spirits from Painted Stave, beers from Blue Earl, and wines from Harvest Ridge, which is in nearby Marydel,” says Johnson, who believes the inn will only help Smyrna’s continuing renaissance.

Just outside of town, along South DuPont Highway, Brick Works Brewings & Eats will be open this month. Specializing in housemade beers, handcrafted cocktails and locally sourced foods, Brick Works pays homage to Smyrna’s brick industry.

The brewpub, a first in Smyrna, is the brainchild of Eric Williams and Ryan Maloney, of Mispillion River Brewing, and Kevin Reading and Laura Burton, of Abbott’s Grill, both located in Milford. The group chose to head north for this dining destination, according to spokesperson Lauren Bigelow, “because of the burgeoning population and culture of the city.”

With brewers and chefs at their fingertips, monthly beer dinners are on tap at Brick Works, beginning April 21 at 6 p.m. Tickets are currently available at Fabbottsgrillde.com.

International Flavor

Area eateries offer opportunities for immigrants

An Internet search of the term “immigration” currently generates more results—224 million—than many of the presidential candidates debating the issue (Donald Trump is closest at 215 million). As the 2016 run for the White House really heats up in the coming months, odds are that number will rise.

But no matter on what side of this hot button issue you fall, there is no debating that immigrants are a major part of the restaurant industry. Even Wilmington has its own feel-good stories of those who have come to the United States looking for opportunity, and found it in the hospitality industry.

Three that stand out include a 25-year-old Vietnamese graduate student who is part of a cultural exchange program, a Slovakian chef whose recipes dominate the menu of a popular diner, and a sushi chef whose name is synonymous with the First State’s varied culinary landscape.

Be it through work visa, green card, or international exchange, each one is making the most of his or her time in a Delaware restaurant, and the hungry masses patronizing these restaurants are reaping the culinary benefits.

An International Exchange

Tham Hong Tran is only 25 years old, but the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology graduate student has already done more traveling than many of her classmates. Currently, thanks to an international exchange program, she is spending one year learning all aspects of restaurant management at Ubon Thai Cuisine on the Wilmington Riverfront.

“I’m getting a chance to learn how a restaurant works in America, but at the same time seeing it through Asian cuisines, which I’m familiar with,” Tran says. “I came here in December, and Ubon has helped me feel at home. They set me up with a place to stay, my English is getting better, and I’m really enjoying my time in America.”

Chai Milburn, creative director at Ubon, says the exchange program is coordinated through two companies: RMC & Associates, a hospitality and culinary consulting firm, and CCI Greenheart, a nonprofit that handles visa programs, short-term and long-term family hosting, and travel between the U.S. and 30 countries around the world.

“The program really is an amazing opportunity for everyone involved,” Milburn says. “We get a committed employee interested in learning every aspect of how our restaurant is managed, and the intern gains the knowledge they can take back to their home country to help them find full-time employment when they graduate.”

Milburn says this is the second year Ubon has participated in the program. This spring, they are expecting students from Nepal and the Philippines. The program is intended to bring on both front-of-house and back-of-house staff, so they are looking forward to hosting some potential Asian chefs this year.

“The Asian population is somewhat small in Delaware, and the Thai population even more so,” Milburn says. “Because most of our family is still in Thailand, we wanted an opportunity to bring in more variety and more Asian influence to our menu. This program gives us that opportunity, which is something I wish I had in college.”

Through December of 2016, Tran will continue to learn how to make the popular Asian-influenced cocktails served at Ubon, and will become completely immersed in the menu and the day-to-day business operations. By September, her final “project” will require her to plan an event at Ubon—from soup to nuts (so to speak).

“I’ll be working hard all year to understand what the clientele wants and to put together an event or dinner before returning home,” Tran says. “I’m very much looking forward to creating a menu with food and drinks, and seeing everything through to the end of my internship. It’s exciting.”

A native of Slovakia, Chef Rudy Tallo has found a home at Lucky's.
A native of Slovakia, Chef Rudy Tallo has found a home at Lucky’s.

A Lucky Landing Spot

Chef Rudy Tallo has also been able to create new dishes and lend his own recipes to the menu at Lucky’s Diner on Concord Pike. Since arriving from Slovakia in 2011, Tallo has won over guests with his pierogies and blintzes, and the popular diner now features a special Slovak menu seven days a week.

“When I came here from Slovakia, after five years in England, I didn’t know very much English, and worked 40 hours at Lucky’s and 40 hours at Grotto Pizza,” Tallo says. “I never really worked on the kitchen line before, but I worked as a baker in Slovakia for years, so they had me start making pastries here.”

Manager Matt Tyrawski says that Tallo’s pastries, croissants and other baked goods became very popular, and baking became his first step up the ladder. After he was promoted to head chef and kitchen manager, Tyrawski and Tallo began working on the Slovak menu.

“I do beef goulash and roasted game hen with stuffing, but I think the most popular item is the potato pancakes stuffed with sautéed chicken,” Tallo says. “I do them on Fridays and Saturdays, and start with 12 each day. But by 4 p.m., I’m making 12 more, and then it got up to 35 or 40 each day. People seem to like it.”

Tyrawski agrees, saying the potato pancakes “absolutely fly out of here,” and sales of Chef Rudy’s dishes and customer feedback have been through the roof. Tyrawski isn’t sure if Tallo would have had the same opportunity at a place like Grotto’s, but he’s pleased how things have worked out at Lucky’s.

“Maybe if Rudy had worked somewhere more corporate, they wouldn’t have handed the keys to the kitchen to someone with just a green card,” Tyrawski says. “I don’t know, maybe a privately owned company like ours offers more opportunity. All I know is that Rudy has made the most out of his chances here.”

After five years of working under green card status, Tallo can apply to become a United States citizen in May. Until then, he is studying to take his citizenship test while holding down his full-time gig, and is living a dream.

“When I first came to the United States, I wanted to see my mom, who married an American soldier and had been here for 20 years,” Tallo says. His stepfather, Fred Abel, has a son from a previous marriage, who played soccer with Tyrawski in high school, hence their connection.

“It’s turned into a new life for me,” Tallo says. “I’m so happy when people tell me my goulash is authentic, or the pierogies are the best they’ve ever tasted.” He hopes to become a U.S. citizen later this year, and then work on bringing his girlfriend, Barbara, from Slovakia, so that she too can one day become an American citizen.

Chef Al Chu
Chef Al Chu

Rolling with The Changes

Foodies, critics, sushi fans, festival organizers, you name it: almost everyone knows Chef Al Chu, who has been a staple behind the sushi bar at Mikimoto’s for 15 years. A Chinese immigrant, Chu arrived in the U. S. in 1978, grew up on Long Island, attended college in Buffalo, and learned the art of sushi in 1997.

“I started working in a bank after college, but got tired of it and went to work in a Chinese restaurant in New York with my sister in the 1980s,” Chu says. “So I had opportunities other than working in a restaurant, but I know that a lot of first-generation Chinese immigrants could always find work in restaurants or the garment industry.”

When Chu’s other sister invited him to work in her West Palm Beach restaurant in Florida, he began to learn the art of making and rolling sushi under Master Sushi Chef Paul Shitaki. Four years later, a friend suggested work in Delaware, where the sushi landscape was filled with opportunity.

“I arrived at Mikimoto’s one year after they opened, and two years later, I took over as executive chef,” Chu says. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried to offer similar opportunities to immigrants from China, either through friends of mine back home, or through job placement agencies in New York, where I still have connections.”

Chu says that over his 15 years of employment at Mikimoto’s, he’s hired cooks and chefs that have lasted as little as six months to a year, and as long as 10 years, like one of his counterparts, Chef Lee, hired in 2004.

“The best thing about working in a restaurant, especially if you are coming in from another country, is that you can work without having to speak fluent English,” Chu says. “That’s especially true in the kitchen, where you really only have to communicate with your co-workers, most of whom speak your native language.”

Chu goes on to say, however, that rolling sushi is a different back-of-house animal, in that chefs are on display and are encouraged to put on a show for guests. Learning the basics of the English language is something Chu stresses for new sushi employees, so they can interact with guests.

“Every night here, we put on a show for the guests, and you have to be part of that show,” Chu says.

Chu also says he gives his employees an opportunity to work a basic 40-hour week at Mikimoto’s, and pays them for overtime when the hours are available. A lot of restaurants in China, and even in New York, won’t do that, he says.

Across the spectrum of Delaware restaurants with international employees, it proves true that opportunities for fair working conditions and wages exist. Immigrants who take advantage of those chances are the ones who benefit most.

Life Behind Bars

Four Delaware bartenders dish on serving The First State

Walk into most restaurants, and whether it’s a slow Tuesday afternoon or a busy Friday night, there’s usually something going down at the bar. Customers are laughing and carrying on, or yelling at the TV, or even singing along to the acoustic duo doing covers of Dave Matthews and Billy Joel.

In the center of it all is the bartender. He or she mixes drinks, pours beers, takes orders, conducts traffic, tell jokes, and in effect creates an environment that makes customers feel at home.

We spoke with four “lifers” with a total of more than 85 years behind some of Delaware’s most well-attended bars to find out what it’s like being the ringmaster of all this action. They revealed how they got started, what keeps them in the business, and described some unique tips they’ve received over the years. They also threw in some advice for today’s bar-hoppers.

Alan Rutherford, The Man at Kid’s

Just a little over 20 years ago, while he was waiting tables at Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Wilmington, Al Rutherford was offered a shot at tending bar during one of Kid’s famously busy Sunday brunches.

Anyone who has stopped in for steak and eggs between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday knows that the scene at Kid’s can be a dizzying display of servers, hostesses and kitchen staff working as a well-oiled machine.

For Rutherford, it was baptism by fire, but he survived it, would continue working nights while getting his master’s in physiology from the University of Delaware, and then would be faced with a decision to make when he graduated.

“Most people will tell you they get into bartending for the money, and I’m no exception,” says Rutherford. “The job offers I got when I graduated were for peanuts, so I decided to stay on at Kid’s, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Now 48, Rutherford hasn’t a single regret. He’s become as much a part of the bar scene at Kid’s as the comfy swivel chairs aligned on the back side of the bar itself. But aside from the money – Rutherford says Kid’s has been a “gold mine” – the North New Jersey native says you have to love people to be a good bartender.

“The best part of tending bar is the people, although the worst part of tending bar can also be the people,” says Rutherford. “I’d say 95 percent of the people are great; they come in to share their stories, hang out and have a good time. But of course you’ll always have that 5 percent of cantankerous folks that just don’t want to be nice. For each type of person, you have to be a professional and try your best to show them a good time.”

Over the years, some folks have had a little bit more of a good time than others. During the 1990s, when Kid’s was under different ownership (the Trolley Square icon is now owned by the Harry’s Restaurant Group), Kid’s featured a DJ Night on Thursdays that sometimes got a bit rowdy.

“Yeah, I remember seeing some girls get up on the bar on those crazier nights,” says Rutherford. “And I remember seeing some of those girls’ clothes come off. After a few incidents, we had to, um, discourage that. The ‘90s were a different time.”

Today Rutherford still enjoys his job, but does feel that the younger clientele has changed the relationship between bartender and customer, mostly because of the smartphone. They’re constantly on their phones, he says, and it comes off as rude.

“I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but the kids with the cellphones…it’s gone too far,” he says. “We used to have a no cellphone policy years ago, but that doesn’t fly anymore. I’d just say that if you’re gonna go out to the bar, enjoy your experience. Engage with your bartender, your friends, and the atmosphere. Kid’s is a really fun place to hang out, and I think you miss out on that if you’re constantly looking down at your phone the entire time.”

Matty Kasper, Starboard Icon

Drive down Route 1 through Dewey Beach just about any weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day and you’ll see a packed house and lines out the door for what is one of Delaware’s most popular bars, The Starboard. Somewhere buried among the throng of bikini-clad ladies and the dudes in swim trunks you’ll usually find Matty Kasper busy juicing hundreds of grapefruits and opening bottles of Bud Light.

It’s been that way for 18 summers, ever since Kasper, now 44, was offered a job bar backing (basically being a busboy for the bartender—getting him ice and other supplies, cleaning up after hours; a bartender starter job). That turned into a bartending gig a few summers later.

It’s been said that Starboard bartenders don’t quit; they simply die, implying that the gig is so coveted because of both the money and the excitement of working at such a busy establishment that no one ever leaves the job. Kasper agrees.

“It really is a phenomenal place to work, from the co-workers to the owners to the regular customers that come through here every summer,” says Kasper. “It’s like a big family here, which is kinda cool. The hours can be rough, but the pace of the place makes them fly by. However, if you want to be a bartender here, get in line.”

While The Starboard does great business for New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day weekend, things really kick off on Memorial Day weekend, when Dewey sees its annual flood of out-of-towners and vacationers looking to kick back and have a few adult beverages. Kasper says that three-day weekend is the longest stretch he works each year.

“The craziest shift is Memorial Day Sunday. We can’t serve booze until 9 a.m., but we’re open for breakfast at 8 a.m.,” says Kasper. “By 8:59 a.m., we have a line of 300 people around the building, and the waitresses already have pre-ordered drink tickets for their tables. Once it strikes 9 a.m., the floodgates open and it doesn’t stop until 1 a.m. the next day.”

He says that’s roughly a 22-hour shift, if you begin with a 7 a.m. call time and continue until all the checks are closed and the bar is cleaned Monday around 4 or 5 a.m. Though he doesn’t know how many crates of oranges or grapefruit the bar goes through to make its famous “Crush” drinks, Kasper says he’s been told by distributors that they sell the most Absolut Ruby Red vodka in the country to make the drinks.

When bartenders get busy, according to Kasper, they have a system of getting to patrons one by one, avoiding long waits for people based on when they belly up. However, if you’re at Kasper’s bar during a busy shift, one thing can guarantee you slow—or no—service: Yelling “Yo!” or calling him “Bro!” if you don’t know him.

“If people just stand there and smile, or raise their hand, I’ll get to them,” says Kasper. “It’s when you start yelling at me that I’ll likely tune you out and move on to the next person. I know you’re waiting there, and I’ll get to you, just be patient.”

Brian Ford, Mr. Main Street

Brian Ford is another lifer. For 23 years, Newark bar-goers could find him perched at Klondike Kate’s on Main Street. Every Thursday around 5 p.m., he’d have the same set of regulars who bellied-up and joined him and co-workers for what felt like a weekly private party.

Now down the street at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen, Ford finds himself in a slightly different environment. The hours are a little easier and the clientele is a little more grown up, but he still feels that being a good bartender comes down to a few fundamentals.

“For me, bartending is all about interaction with the guests, and getting to know people,” says Ford. “The drinks and food, to me, have always been secondary. You can get a Ketel and tonic or a chicken sandwich anywhere. But if you get to know your bartender, and maybe even become friends, you’ll go back again and again.”

The 44-year-old has certainly worked at enough bars—including Scratch Magoo’s, Firestone and the Columbus Inn in Wilmington—to know that guests can sit at any table and have a waiter or waitress serve them a burger. But to Ford, the bartender-customer relationship is different.

“A martini is just a martini, but if I ask what you do, ask your name, and get to know you a little, I guarantee it’ll be a more memorable martini than usual,” he says. “And I’m not just trying to start new relationships for better tips, but it usually does work out that way, which is great.”

Ford says he’s been rewarded heavily over the years for great service. Parents of a University of Delaware ice hockey team member once tipped him a thousand dollars for “looking after their son,” while another regular once offered him keys to a beach house in Key West.

“Don’t get me wrong, those kinds of tips are great, and I’m always very appreciative when someone goes out of their way to show their gratitude,” he says. “But a lot of younger bartenders today, from what I’ve seen, kind of expect 20 percent or more just for showing up. It doesn’t work that way.”

Ford says tips need to be earned, rather than expected. As the bar manager at Grain, he’s trying to instill the ideals of hard work, conversation, and relationship building with the next generation of bartenders.

“If you can get on a level with your customers where you become Facebook friends with them, or text them to go out and grab a beer the next time you’re not working, you’ve really gone above and beyond as a bartender,” says Ford. “When you’re tending bar, you should be having fun with the people around you. With two bars here at Grain, that’s our goal: to create a great atmosphere at each one.”

Nicol DiMarzio, Logan House Linchpin

Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly's Logan House. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly’s Logan House.
(Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Now a 24-year veteran of the restaurant-and-bar business, Nicol DiMarzio’s start in the hospitality industry includes a bit of humor as well as a historic tragedy. Her first bartending shift took place in her home state of New Jersey, where a customer ordered a Bloody Mary, and after tasting it, asked for DiMarzio to make it hotter.

“I went in the back and microwaved the thing,” says DiMarzio, laughing. “I had no idea he meant make it spicier; that’s how naïve I was.”

So much for the humor. The tragedy was on a much greater scale. Her first “real shift” as a bartender, as she puts it, came just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, while she was working as a server at Kid Shelleen’s.

“One of the owners at the time had a son who died in the terrorist attacks,” says DiMarzio. “It was awful. But that Friday, we held a benefit and they needed an extra bartender. I guess they figured that for that kind of event, no one would complain if my service was slow on a Friday night. They threw me back there and I started working bar shifts the next week.”

For DiMarzio, bartending is about three things: interaction with guests, the money she’s made over the years, and avoiding the monotony of a corporate desk job. She’s now at Kelly’s Logan House, where she acts as manager much more often than she tends bar, but she still enjoys talking with people.

“I’m not the kind of person who would start up a random conversation with people on the street,” she says, “but get me behind the bar and I can’t stop talking with them. Just don’t call me sweetie, baby, or hon.”

Besides her disdain for pet names, DiMarzio also doesn’t like it when she hears people ask her co-workers about getting a “real job.” She says some customers don’t view waiting tables or tending bar as real careers, just because they’re not 9-to-5 desk jobs.

“I’ve had people ask me what I do for a living while I was tending bar,” she says. “I used to work for DuPont, but I couldn’t do the corporate desk thing. That’s probably one of the best parts of working in the restaurant industry: things are a little more relaxed, and you can joke around and have fun with customers.”

For DiMarzio, a good regular bar patron asks about how the bartender is doing, and has some respect for the job. After working at places like Six Paupers, Dead Presidents, Lime and even the long-forgotten Café Bellissimo, DiMarzio says the guests who treat bartenders the best usually get treated the best in return.

So to sum up: the perfect bartender is a professional—not some moonlighting amateur—who will lend a sympathetic ear, deliver a well-mixed drink in a timely manner, and expect an appropriate gratuity for his or her services. In return, customers are expected to be respectful, keep cell phone use to a minimum, and never, ever use the words “yo,” “bro,” “hon,” “baby,” or “sweetie” within earshot of the bartender.