By Murray Schulman
Here we are at the start of July. Independence Day celebrations are taking place all over the country. Vacationers are clogging the highways on their way to beaches, campgrounds and hundreds of other destinations. Grillers are grilling, smokers are smoking and locally grown fruit and vegetables are at their peak. This is a very special time of the year.
Wilmington is not about to be left out of the action. This year marked the 45th anniversary of the St. Anthony Italian Festival as a major destination event. Thousands flocked to Wilmington to enjoy the carnival and cultural extravaganza. The event, which ran from June 10-16, spanned several blocks in the Little Italy section of Wilmington. In one section of this huge event were the typical rides, cotton candy, snow cones and everything that a carnival should be. In another section of the event were dozens of local eateries dishing out their signature Italian-style recipes and traditional specialties. In yet another section, the sounds of live bands playing traditional Italian and Italian-American music could be heard. The young and the old alike could not keep from joining in the dancing.
Of course, this would not be an Italian Festival without the wine flowing and just a bit of drinking and plain old fun taking place all around. Pastry chefs supplied a vast array of every type of Italian pastry imaginable. We picked up a Baba Rum that was so soaked with liquor that Liz ate the pastry and I sipped the rum. Yum! The Italian Festival is an event during which the Italian community takes center stage for all to enjoy. On the final day of the festival, hundreds gathered for the Mass in Italian at St. Anthony of Padua Church. The Festa Patronale, the Festival Procession of many revered saints, including the patron saint of the festival, St. Anthony of Padua, followed, ending the week-long festival.
In the midst of all of this Italian heritage and culture, we were excited to find another fixture of Wilmington’s Little Italy in the spotlight. Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” television show on The Food Network. Luigi, a longtime friend and chef, looked great on camera. I just had to give him a call to congratulate him on the TV appearance. Luigi invited me to stop by the restaurant on a “prep day” to share a bottle of wine and to talk about old times.
Luigi has been part of Italian culture in Wilmington nearly as long as the Italian Festival has been around. At the urging of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Luigi sold his restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, and made the move to Wilmington. Cuomo hinted to Luigi that the Riverfront was soon to be redeveloped. That was back in 1987. It would be nearly 20 years before Cuomo’s prediction would come to pass.
Luigi purchased a small butcher shop in what was the Little Italy district on Lincoln Street in Wilmington. He refitted the shop and Pastabilities was born. It took two years for the restaurant to become more than a little take-out stop. Luigi converted the former apartment behind the store into a dining room. Pastabilities was reborn as a full-service restaurant. I enjoyed a quip from Luigi about an early News Journal headline, “Pastabilities goes to the dogs.” Luigi provided a pet’s menu including “Fat Cats” for the kitties and “Happy Dog” for the puppies. Yes, back then even the cats and dogs were enjoying hand-made tortellini in chicken stock.
Pastabilities thrived as a destination spot for lovers of authentic Italian cuisine and for those that wanted to be seen from all walks of life. The restaurant became known for handmade pasta, fresh ingredients and old-school authentic Italian recipes. It was at the height of Pastabilities’ popularity that I met Luigi some 18 years ago. Liz and I were among the regular crowd that would fill the restaurant every night. Sometimes it was just to enjoy Luigi’s unequalled ravioli. This is still her favorite dish all these years later. Other nights we were there to indulge in one of Luigi’s over-the-top wine dinners. We share so many happy memories with Pastabilities. I sent my stepson Ed on his first formal date with Kelly, his wife of 17 years, to Pastabilities. They fell in love with Luigi’s food and with each other that night.
Through the years, Liz and I would come to the restaurant. The staff knew what we drank. We never saw a menu. Luigi knew that Liz wanted ravioli. I ate whatever he decided to make for me to try. The arancini was always a must-have. I was never disappointed. These were great times with delicious food. Luigi would join us at table to share a glass of wine and we would talk about the dishes that we enjoyed that night.
But, like life, great things do not always last. In 2009, Luigi fell ill and the restaurant closed for 10 months. The clients drifted away and the restaurant sat empty. Luigi struggled to recover both physically and with the business. He fought his way back in slow painful increments. Luigi was no quitter. He was a tough guy from Brooklyn. He didn’t know the meaning of the word quit.
Today, as Guy Fieri put it, this “funky little restaurant” still stands open in the heart of Wilmington’s Little Italy. Luigi is still there in the kitchen making pasta and ravioli. He still serves delicious old-school authentic Italian cuisine just like he did in that same spot 32 years ago. Luigi said that he is looking for a “young gun” to teach and mentor. He dreams of the day that he finds someone with the passion, the talent and the drive that he recognized in himself all those years ago. Until that someone walks through his door with chef tools in hand and fire in his eyes, Luigi will be right there. That is how it should be. IAH