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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January 2016

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, DE

More information

Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
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Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Website »

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Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, taking more lives than all cancers combined. On Friday, Feb. 5, the American Heart Association (AHA) asks that everyone wear red to raise awareness for...

Where:
Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center
1131 N. DuPont Hwy
Dover, DE
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Two-hour guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Guests will visit Eleutherian Mills Residence, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


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

More information

This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
Website »

More information

Prepare to gasp, shudder, and be on the edge of your seat in this ingenious thriller which inspired the classic film that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Audrey Hepburn. This murderous...

Cost: $15-$29

Where:
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
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Sponsor: Resident Ensemble Players
Telephone: 302-831-2204
Contact Name: REP Box Office
Website »

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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
Website »

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Chances are, if you look out your windows, it’s pretty wintry. When was the last time you saw lush green plants in that view? We have a cure for your blahs, straight from the...

Where:
, DE

More information

Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

More information

Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Lewes Public Library, 111 Adams Ave., Lewes, 2nd Floor Time: 8:40 a.m.–9:30 a.m. Fee: Free

Where:
, DE

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Wear red and dine out at a participating restaurant to receive a free heart-healthy menu item. Tell your server you’re wearing red to celebrate “Wear Red Day.” “Go Red...

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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First Saturdays in the First State   Programs and events on the first Saturday of each month. Sites are open, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., check website for...

Cost: Free

Where:
First State Heritage Park
121 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd N
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Sponsor: First State Heritage Park
Telephone: 302-739-9194
Contact Name: Sarah Zimmerman
Website »

More information

Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

First Saturdays in the First State   Programs and events on the first Saturday of each month. Sites are open, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., check website for...

Cost: Free

Where:
First State Heritage Park
121 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd N
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Sponsor: First State Heritage Park
Telephone: 302-739-9194
Contact Name: Sarah Zimmerman
Website »

More information

Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the Wilmington, Del. Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction will host the 22nd annual Block Kids competition. It’s a free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hodgson Vo-Tech High School
2575 Glasgow Ave.
Newark, DE  19702
View map »


Sponsor: National Association of Women in Construction
Telephone: 302-453-4000
Contact Name: Laura Massimini
Website »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


Website »

More information

Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


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

More information

This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
Website »

More information

Valentine’s Day isn’t just about romance. Join Macy’s Christiana for an afternoon of Valentine’s Day cheer to celebrate all the loves in your life—including yourself!...

Where:
Macy's at Christiana Mall
Women's Department, Level 1
502 Christiana Mall
Newark, DE  19702
View map »


Contact Name: Jessica Chan

More information

First Saturdays in the First State Programs and events on the first Saturday of each month. Sites are open, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., check website for details. Free admission. Something new every...

Cost: Free

Where:
First State Heritage Park
121 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd N
43 The Green
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Sponsor: First State Heritage Park
Telephone: 302-739-9194
Contact Name: Sarah Zimmerman
Website »

More information

The Chadds Ford Historical Society hosts its 8th annual Plein Air art event. Artists will be painting around the local area as well as the Barns Brinton House, John Chads House and Brandywine Creek...

Cost: General Admission: $10 | Exclusive Preview Party (includes 2 Tickets): $50

Where:
Chadds Ford Historical Society
1736 Creek Rd
Chadds Ford, PA  19317
View map »


Telephone: 610-388-7376
Contact Name: Derek Larson OR Allison Schell
Website »

More information

Prepare to gasp, shudder, and be on the edge of your seat in this ingenious thriller which inspired the classic film that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Audrey Hepburn. This murderous...

Cost: $15-$29

Where:
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: Resident Ensemble Players
Telephone: 302-831-2204
Contact Name: REP Box Office
Website »

More information

Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

More information

Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

More information

A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

More information

Chances are, if you look out your windows, it’s pretty wintry. When was the last time you saw lush green plants in that view? We have a cure for your blahs, straight from the...

Where:
, DE

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
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