Café Scalessa Reopens on Greenhill Avenue

The Italian-American eatery has been a part of the Wilmington restaurant scene from 2002-2011. Now home again in his former spot, Don Scalessa delivers solid Italian fare to returning and new clientele. And yes, the disco ball is still there.



Owner Don Scalessa and his renowned spaghetti and meatballs are the stars of Café Scalessa.

Photos by Ron Dubick

Café Scalessa
504 Greenhill Ave., Wilmington
656-0955, cafescalessa.com

Prices:
Salads and antipasti $8.95-$15.95
Pastas $13.95-$19.95,
Entrées $14.95-$19.95

Recommended dishes: 
Meatballs with Sunday gravy, gnocchi, butter cake

 

 

Café Scalessa, from its comfy pocket along Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington, offers sheer Italian-American escapism.

Of the 6,000 Google search results for Scalessa’s, more than 3,000 contain the word “Sinatra.” Imposing owner Don Scalessa furnishes his guests with his oeuvre of wiseguy motif. There are the notations on the menu—“our pastas are cooked to order, capish?” And my favorite: “Leave the gun, take the butter cake.” Dean Martin is heard on the house speakers. There are chianti-colored walls. There are mobster movies playing on three TV screens on endless loops.

The fist-sized meatballs are legendary.Since its inception in 2002, the tiny café had built an impressive following on the back of its old-school Italian charm. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Chef Don’s food—predictable but reliable—was culled from family recipes: slow-cooked meats, bubbling and building tenderness in pots of Sunday gravy, Italian long hot peppers blistering in hot olive oil. The nightlife sizzled, thanks to a Sinatra-heavy music program and DJ-fueled dance parties.

But in 2011, Scalessa suddenly sold his restaurant. Restaurateur Andy Watt moved in and opened Cafe DeVita in the Wawaset Plaza spot, while Scalessa plotted reinventing Scalessa’s in a new location. One year later, with DeVita already a memory, Scalessa reclaimed his former spot. Instead of a reinvention, he subtly improved the space with fresh paint, light fixtures and a better sound system. Scalessa’s famous disco ball and Don’s recipes happily remain.

So the New Scalessa’s is ostensibly the Old Scalessa’s, which is as good as neighborhood Italian gets in this part of Delaware. Wilmington loves its ’70s-style Italian, be it from Mrs. Robino’s or Pastabilities. And while no one is going to win a James Beard Award with eggplant parm and pasta fagioli, that’s not really the point.

If you don’t have ricotta coursing through your veins (and who doesn’t at least have a little?) Scalessa’s can seem heavy-handed. And there are, in fact, several scenes from “The Godfather” that I don’t necessarily want to watch while eating. But if anything, Scalessa’s is honest. Its mild case of kitsch can be blocked out by great food prepared slowly and meticulously by Don himself.

Calamari fritti is served two ways: with flash-fried spinach (top) and with homemade red pepper gravy, tossed with a balsamic reduction.

Like any compelling family-based enterprise (the Corleones and the Sopranos included), Scalessa’s has its imperfections that range from the benign to the perplexing. But Don nails the important stuff. What would an old-school Italian joint be without great spaghetti and meatballs? Finely ground and slowly simmered, Scalessa’s fist-sized meatballs are melt-apart tender and among the best around.

His Sunday gravy is no simple colloquialism, but lava-thick—rich, potent and flavorful. Threads of braised pork and castaway hunks of meatballs swish around through rough-chopped nuggets of tomato and garlic. Poured over perfectly toothsome al dente linguini, the gravy rules its subjects with a firm hand and tomato-y brio.

Pastas at Scalessa’s hit the same strong notes, particularly the homemade gnocchi, with its expertly grained texture and composition.

arshmallow soft with ample bite, the nuggets were not starchy or doughy like so many imitators. One night the chef plunged them into buttery blush sauce swimming with herbs, frizzled garlic slices and tomato chunks. Colossal shrimp, fleshy as lobster tails, soaked everything in.

The popular vanilla and chocolate butter cakes are dusted in powdered sugar.

When it comes to calamari fritti, meanwhile, Scalessa takes a welcomed detour. Eschewing the standard and staid dipping sauce, he tosses his impeccably crispy, gently seasoned squid in flash-fried spinach leaves and grated Parmesan, which flaked, melted and behaved as the perfect foil to the crunchy calamari. Another preparation drenched the squid in robust red pepper gravy, enameling the morsels in a deep, peppery coat.

It’s hard not to at least mention Scalessa’s excellent tiramisu, which excels at being light and buoyant, yet decadent. But this is butter cake territory, and other desserts simply pay respect. The Scalessa’s butter cake is worth its weight in concrete blocks. Here, on a plate dusted in powdered sugar, eggs, milk, granulated sugar—and plenty of butter—exist in perfect harmony. Crackly, chewy and smooth, a slice hits the same textural pleasure zones of a chocolate chip cookie, and melts apart on the tongue.

On busy nights, which is most nights, since Scalessa’s serves dinner from Wednesdays through Saturdays, the restaurant can be chaotic. In its small dining space, tables feel cramped, and are typically serviced by just one or two waiters who are forced to squeeze between a dozen tables, occasionally taking a slightly-jarring breather on any unoccupied seats. Between the open kitchen (which shares space with the dining room), loud music and Joe Pesci blowing his gasket on three screens, there were moments of agita.

Colossal shrimp are served in a blush sauce.

Other times, small blunders in preparation—like an overly buttery Marsala sauce, or a pale, watery tomato that snugged up against homemade mozzarella—hit sour notes. Without the assistance of sugar from riper fruit, the tomatoes failed to accentuate Scalessa’s otherwise excellent cheese. Firm, and gently salted, the mozzarella looked pale and nondescript.

Which was nothing compared to Scalessa’s iron skillet mussels. Without a sauce or a dressing, the mussels’ fishy liqueur smoldered on the surface of a cast-iron skillet, and created a burnt layer of crust that stuck to shells and imparted an unpleasant flavor.

But Scalessa’s imperfections, mobster mania and terrific homespun food blend together for a unique Wilmington experience. At the center of it all is the muscular ringleader, caring for regulars like family. When diners walk through the door, they, indeed, become family.

As we left the restaurant one night, Scalessa spun around to say: “Come back on Saturday—we have two Frank Sinatra singers.” I waited around an extra beat, awkwardly, for a “capish” that never came.  

 

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Website »

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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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Tutto Fresco has live entertainment every Friday night from 6:30–9:30 p.m. Call for details. http://tuttofrescode.com/

Where:
Tutto Fresco
514 Philadelphia Pike
Wilmington, DE  19809
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Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
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JOHNNY WINTER ALL STAR BAND The Johnny Winter Band has been wowing audiences everywhere with incredible music played by Johnny's band and guest artists. Join Paul Nelson and The JW Band in a...

Cost: $20 ADV + $22 DOS + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live Wilmington
500 N Market St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 215-222-1400
Contact Name: MP Intern
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Now in its 8th year, the PAWS for People Conference/Annual Meeting is designed for those who love their pets, are pet enthusiasts or who want to learn more about the world of Pet Therapy. This...

Cost: $45 through 2/14; $50 after that date; $5 discount for PAWS members.

Where:
Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
1600 Rockland Road
Wilmington, DE  19803
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Sponsor: PAWS for People
Telephone: 302-351-5622
Contact Name: Clarice Ritchie
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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-9111
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The Wilmington & Western Railroad's Hockessin Art Festival is a fundraising effort to benefit the railroad. Over 25 artists will be displaying and selling limited-edition...

Cost: $3 for art show admission; $5 for train fare (children under 2 are free)

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
606 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
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Sponsor: Wilmington & Western Railroad
Telephone: 302-998-1930
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Are you interested in learning more about what volunteer opportunities the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation has to offer? Consider attending our Volunteer Open House at our shipyard in Wilmington, DE from...

Cost:

Where:
Kalmar Nyckel Foundation
1124 E 7th St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

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DCM Guests will experience, engage in, and take home different STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathmatics) activities run by Science Ambassadors from the Charter School of Wilmington...

Cost: $8.75

Where:
Delaware Children's Museum
550 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-425-4890
Contact Name: Joe Valenti
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

Build a hydraulic-powered machine while learning about pressure, water, and power. Families work together to solve science mysteries and engineering challenges. Activities are included in regular...

Cost: Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under and Hagley Members: FREE

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
Website »

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An evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball. Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to celebrate the lifesaving work of...

Cost:

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Join us for an unforgettable evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball.  Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to...

Cost: $175

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: American Heart Association
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We are a mixture of some of the best and hardest working musicians in the Philadelphia area specializing in a mashup concept, fusing the music of The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead....

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE
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Mo Lowda & The Humble is a three piece Indie-rock group from Philadelphia, PA. The band has created a unique musical style combining various genre's ranging from garage rock to jazz fusion;...

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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