During the peak years of immigration to the United States from southern Italy, many of the Italian immigrants came to Delaware seeking a better life. They came to work as laborers on the railroad and in construction. In 1890, there were 459 Italian-born residents in Delaware and their numbers grew greatly by the close of the century. Besides those two industries, there were other industries in Delaware that attracted Italian immigrants and these included the leather, iron and steel industries. Many of the early immigrants were men who left their families behind temporarily until they could establish themselves and bring their families to Delaware. They often stayed in boarding houses with other workers. Eventually, their families joined them and they bought homes in Wilmington.
Over the years, these immigrants settled in the neighborhood around Union and Lincoln Streets between Pennsylvania and Lancaster Avenues. They brought with them a strong, determined and independent culture, which they preserved through strong family structures and ties. The neighborhood was known as The Hill and, eventually, Little Italy.
After a few years, many Italian immigrants opened their own businesses, such as mom and pop shops. They opened fruit and vegetable stores and offered their services as shoemakers, tailors, barbers, bakers, butchers, cheese and macaroni makers. Later they became restaurateurs, grocery and other retail store operators. Over the years, a ten by four block area of West Wilmington became an enclave for Italians who lived and worked there and its Italian identity grew strong.
In recent years, the area has been revitalized with ongoing beautification projects through the Little Italy Merchant Association. The neighborhood is a cultural mix with a prominent Italian atmosphere and each June a weeklong celebration — St. Anthony’s Italian Festival — brings over 100,000 visitors to the area. It’s one of the largest Italian festivals in the country with attractions that include a bocce tournament, live music from several stages, strolling musicians from Italy, a midway, Italian food and merchandise, a Bellini Bar, a Panini Cafe, tours of St. Anthony’s Church and a procession of the Saints.
The large green arch featuring Italian crests, hangs over 4th Street and Lincoln Street, welcoming visitors and residents to Little Italy. Many Italian specialty stores are located here. The Fierro family has been making cheese in Wilmington at M. Fierro and Sons LLC (1025 N. Union St.) since 1928 and are well-know for their ricotta cheese.
Cheese making became a part of Wilmington’s Little Italy in the early 1900’s. Fierro & Sons has been part of Wilmington’s small business district since 1928. Michael Fierro, a Naples, Italy native, began his cheese-making livelihood in the cellar of Matassino’s grocery store at Seventh and Scott Streets. Mr. Fierro learned to make ricotta in an oval tub using just two gas burners. In 1936, Michael Fierro Senior decided to buy the Italian Republican Club on Sixth Street between Lincoln and Union. He made the upstairs rooms apartments and made cheese in the cellar two nights a week. Many people today still talk about their experience as kids, when they went down into the cellar to buy cheese for their mothers and grandmothers.
The Fierro second generation, Vincent and his brother Albert united after World War II, wanted to move their cheese business to another level. They went from selling to local Wilmington residents and businesses to areas in New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington. Due to the increase in the cheese business outside of the Delaware borders, the Fierro brothers decided to expand M. Fierro & Sons LLC and moved the business to their present address at 1025 North Union Street. Since 1947, the Fierro family has owned and operated the business. People know Fierro ricotta around the Tri-State area. Ricotta comes in all sizes from 15 oz to 30-pound containers. Along with ricotta, they also manufacturer fresh mozzarella, pizza cheese and cheese curd. In 2007, another local family run business, Hy-Point Dairy, purchased the Fierro business to ensure the Fierro family tradition continues.
A few blocks down the street, Papa’s Pastry Shop (600 N. Union St.) puts a decidedly modern twist on Italian sweets by offering gluten-free versions. Restaurants are not in short supply, but the two oldest also have the distinction of being opened by women over half a century ago. Generations of Robinos have been running Mrs. Robino’s Restaurant (520 N. Union St.) since 1940, with house specials like Greens with Garlic and Lottie’s Special: seafood tossed in a creamy blush sauce over penne. Madelines (531 N. Dupont St.), is another of Wilmington’s older restaurants, with over 50 years in the same location run by the same family. They’re known for the house Spezzato entrée, featuring diced veal and mushrooms in a red gravy.
In 1940 most women were content keeping house and taking care of husbands and children. It was then that Mrs. Tresilla Robino not only looked after her husband and family, but also cooked for many husbands and fathers who were on their own in America waiting for the rest of their families to immigrate. Tresilla always had company at her house at dinner time. Someone suggested she open a restaurant and it was then that Mrs. Robino’s was established. At 1903 Howland Street with only a few tables set up in her basement, lines of people started to form out her front door.
When her home on Howland Street became too small to meet the demands of the business, she and her husband bought 520 North Union Street, where the restaurant is located today. Her family moved upstairs and the business was set up downstairs. There were tables on each side of the building leading back to the kitchen. Many nights people would eat standing along the walls right next to tables filled with patrons. The building she purchased now serves as the entrance and kitchen of the current restaurant and a dining room was added in the back. Looking around the room you will see many of the original features from 1940, when the restaurant began.
When Mrs. Robino passed away in 1967 the restaurant was taken over by her daughter, Josephine (Pina) Robino Minuti, and her grandson, Joseph F. Minuti. Josephine and Joseph worked hard to expand the business over the past 30 years.
Italian Recipes Inspired by Wilmington’s Little Italy
- Black Forest Ham or Genoa Salami
- Provolone cheese sliced thin
- Romaine lettuce
- Sliced tomatoes
- Sliced onions
- Condiments include; sweet peppers, hot peppers and sliced pickles.
- Olive oil.
- Salt, pepper and oregano.
Slice the roll down the middle. Remove some of the bread in the center. This allows the meat to lay in the base of the roll.
Lightly sprinkle olive oil and add a layer of ham or salami to both sides of the bread, followed by a layer of Capicola. Next, layer three to four slices of Provolone cheese.
Add lettuce and tomatoes followed by the condiments of choice.
Sprinkle olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano to taste.
Lastly, place three slices of Prosciutto on top and with both hands, thumbs pressed against the roll turn the bottom up into place. Cut in half to serve.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 16 ounces cooked or frozen and defrosted broccoli florets, chopped
- 2 roma (plum) tomatoes, chopped
- 3/4 cups ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1 lb. pizza dough at room temperature
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook garlic 30 seconds, until starting to color. Add broccoli and cook 2 minutes, until heated through. Remove from heat; stir in ricotta cheese.
Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Shape pizza dough into a 14 inch round and transfer to a pizza pan. Spread broccoli mixture over dough leaving a 1/2-inch border. Top with mozzarella, tomato and Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with oregano and remaining tablespoon of oil.
Bake pizza 20-22 minutes or until puffed and nicely browned.
Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities
Well Known Entrees: Veal scallopini saltimbocca, linguini with lobster sauce, red wine fettuccine, cheese ravioli
Red Wine Fettuccine
- 2 pounds mixed seafood of choice: crab, shrimp and mussels, cleaned
- 1 pound dry pasta fettuccine
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ounce pancetta, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup crushed canned tomatoes
- 2 cups red wine
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in halves or quarters
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Salt to taste
Heat the oil over medium flame in a large, deep skillet, add the garlic and onion and saute until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add the pancetta, stir for 30 seconds or so, then mix in the canned tomatoes, red wine and red pepper. Raise the heat and bring things to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the sauce on low for 30 minutes. In the meantime, boil the pasta in salted water until it’s still al dente – not quite cooked. Drain it, reserving about 1/2 cup pasta water.
After 30 minutes, the sauce should be nicely thickened. Add the fresh tomatoes, seafood and the pasta water and cook for 5 minutes until the shellfish is almost cooked. Add the cooked pasta and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes or so until the pasta is heated and has absorbed some sauce. Salt to taste and serve hot,
Sauteed Veal Saltimbocca
You can also make this dish with chicken cutlets.
- 1 pound (12 small, thin slices) tender milk-fed veal cutlets
- 12 large fresh sage leaves
- 12 thin slices prosciutto
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground white or black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons white wine
1. Place a piece of waxed paper on a cutting board and place a slice of veal on it. Cover the meat with another piece of waxed paper. Using the blunt side of a meat mallet, pound lightly on both sides to flatten and tenderize, being sure not to break the meat. To pound the reverse side, just flip the meat over, sandwiched between the sheets of waxed paper. Pound all the veal slices very thinly in this fashion, replacing the waxed paper when necessary.
2. Cut each slice into a piece no bigger than roughly 3 by 4 inches and discard the trimmed bits. You should have 12 thin scallops
3. Place a leaf of sage on each slice, then add a slice of prosciutto the same size as the veal. Secure with a toothpick in the same fashion as you would place a straight pin in fabric to mark it.
4. In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter with half the olive oil over medium heat. Add half the veal, increase heat to high, and saute until lightly golden on the bottom, 2 or 3 minutes. Season the meat with salt and pepper as it sautes. Turn the slices quickly to brown the other side for 2 minutes. Transfer the veal to a warmed serving dish. Add 2 more tablespoons of the butter and the remaining olive oil to the skillet and repeat to cook the remaining veal. Transfer to platter. Add the wine to the pan and stir. Pour sauce over the veal in the serving dish. Serve hot.
Nestled in Trolley Square—Wilmington, Delaware’s northwesterly shopping, nightlife and dining district—is an L-shaped plaza that houses fine wine, gourmet coffee and boutique fashion shops. For 20 years, it has also been home to a local favorite Italian eatery. Having successfully converted Griglia Toscana (established in 1991) to Tavola Toscana and again into Toscana Kitchen+Bar, Owner and Chef Dan Butler has reinvented his Italian kitchen, yet again, this time as the small plate and dessert focused, Piccolina Toscana. Says Butler, “Times change and sometimes you change with them and sometimes you help them change.” The new open-display dessert kitchen is indicative of how big a part dessert plays in the Piccolina Toscana experience. Diners can watch seasonal desserts being made or select from a daily-changing selection of a half-dozen gelati. In fact, dessert-only diners often drop in for late night pumpkin beignets with caramel dipping sauce.
Chef Butler’s recipe
- 1 pound cake cut into long strips. (store bought is fine)
- 16 oz pastry cream or sweetened mascarpone
- 2 oz candied fruit (orange, lemon, raisin)
- 2 oz semisweet chocolate in small chunks
- 20-25 lady finger cookies
- 12 oz sweet marsala
- Rum simple syrup ( 8 oz sugar, 16 oz water, 2 fresh oranges, 2 limes, 3 lemons boiled and chilled—add rum to taste
- 5 egg whites
- 12 oz sugar (you might need to use more, depending on the humidity and size of the eggs)
Lay the stips of poundcake end to end to cover the bottom of a bowl ( a 9′ round x 4″ deep is a good size for 10-12 people). Use a pastry brush to apply the rum simple syrup evenly and generously to the bottom layer. Add about 1/4 of the pastry cream and sprinkle candied fruit and chocolate pieces on top of the pastry cream. If you have pound cake left, use it to cover the pastry cream, otherwise use ladyfingers that have been dunked in sweet marsala for a couple seconds until soft (but still firm enough to be handled). Continue to alternate pastry cream and fruit and chocolate with lady fingers until the mold is filled to the top.
Refrigerate for a couple hours.
Invert onto a serving platter and apply meringue. Burn the meringue in a very hot oven or with a small (creme brulee style) blow torch.
Whip until stiff shiny peaks are formed (if the result looks at all foamy, add more sugar until the result is shiny).
Make sure the the egg whites are completely yolk free and the bowl and whip are very clean, as any fat at all will keep the whites from aerating.
Don’t be afraid to over whip this but once you’ve stopped whipping, don’t leave the meringue in the bowl for any extended length of time (a few minutes is ok but too long and the meringue will fall).
- New York’s “Other Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Little Italy New Jersey Style (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)