From Red Gravy to Thai Curry

A gradual evolution has transformed Wilmington’s Union Street into a melting pot of cuisine from throughout the world


D
on’t look now, but the famed “Restaurant Row” in Wilmington’s Little Italy has evolved into a multicultural mix of ethnic favorites. It was a gradual evolution that started decades ago, spurred by affordable real estate, a welcoming development corporation, and a growing and diverse population. Now, Thai curry, Mexican tacos, requesón cheese and vegan specialties dot menus along Union and Lincoln Streets.

Italian cuisine naturally continues to maintain a strong presence in a neighborhood whose roots can be traced to the height of Italian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Extending the length of Union and Lincoln Streets and bounded by Fourth Street to the south and Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, Little Italy became the epicenter of authentic Italian food.

M. Fierro & Sons, for example, has been part of the west side community since 1928, when Michael Fierro, a Napolitano, began making cheese in the basement of Matassino’s grocery store. The business grew quickly, beginning with the first shop at Sixth Street between Lincoln and Union. It has since expanded to its current location—a welcoming beacon at 1025 N. Union St., off Pennsylvania Avenue.

In addition to its core offerings like ricotta, mozzarella and scamorza (a South Italian cow’s milk cheese), M. Fierro & Sons now serves South American cheese products like queso fresco and requesón, a creamy, spreadable cheese originating in Brazil and Portugal. 

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

The change to a multicultural destination started in the late 1980s or early ‘90s, when a slew of new restaurants like Bangkok House (1988), Walter’s (1993), El Toro (1994) and Eclipse Bistro (1996) opened their doors.

Mukun Cronin first began working as a server at Bangkok House restaurant at 104 N. Union St. The owners were close family friends, and when they decided to retire 10 years ago they offered to sell the business to Cronin.

“Back then, Bangkok House was the only Thai restaurant in Delaware,” says Silinda Cronin, Ms. Cronin’s daughter. “When offered the option to purchase the restaurant from the previous owner, she couldn’t pass it up. Mom wanted to continue the tradition so that Delaware could continue to have authentic Thai food.”

The restaurant has a loyal following who love its traditional pad Thai and crispy, boneless duck served with various sauces. To keep up with the ever-evolving restaurant business, Bangkok House will offer at-home delivery through GrubHub starting this month.

Another step in the evolution occurred in 1996, when Jose Humberto Gomez opened El Toro, at 624 N. Union St. “There were no other Mexican restaurants around,” he says, and it took him almost a year to get customers. Now, he has a loyal clientele who have been coming to El Toro for more than 15 years.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Gomez knew he’d eventually become a chef. “My mother and grandmother inspired me to cook,” he says. Mexican culture, like many others, stresses the importance of tradition, especially in its food – an integral part of its identity and heritage.

Gomez moved to the United States around 1987 for a better life and began working at his cousin’s restaurant in Georgia. Like many others before him, he eventually moved to the First State.

“There were a lot of opportunities here,” he says. “El Toro was a great real estate deal that we couldn’t pass on.”

At first, he kept the menu simple—rice and beans, tacos, enchiladas and carnitas. It took time, but after a while both locals and the burgeoning Latin community began to crave El Toro’s authentic Mexican food.

From the beginning, Gomez wanted to expand. Last year, another real estate opportunity presented itself a block away from his original location, at 1934 W. 6th St., and Gomez expanded to El Toro Cantina, a full-service restaurant and bar.

Mayor Purzycki participates in El Toro Cantina’s first anniversary celebration. Photo O&A Staff

The original location is still open for takeout and delivery, with a large delivery radius—a rarity in Delaware in the age of third-party delivery services. As for El Toro Cantina, it celebrated its first anniversary last month with live music, food specials and a special visit by Mayor Michael S. Purzycki.

Among Union Street’s more established restaurants is Walter’s Steakhouse, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The latest Constantinou food business to serve Delaware, it began with a small sub shop opened by the patriarch, George Constantinou, way back in 1941. The business stood at the corner of Lincoln Street and Shallcross Avenue, where Scalessa’s Old School Italian Kitchen now resides. When Sophie’s Sub Shop closed, George decided to introduce a new concept to the area: Constantinou’s House of Beef, a steakhouse that lasted more than 25 years at its Trolley Square location. When House of Beef closed in 1986, John Constantinou, George’s son, knew he wanted to stay with the family business.

Walter’s has been serving fine beef like this for 26 years. Photo Jim Coarse

Not long afterward, John opened Walter’s Steakhouse at 802 N. Union St., the concept marking a subtle nod to his father’s House of Beef. In the early ‘90s, there were a handful of well-established “convenience-oriented” restaurants, as Constantinou calls them, anchoring the dining scene. They included Pan Tai, Mrs. Robino’s and Pala’s Cafe. But there were few “destination-oriented” restaurants like what Walter’s (and Eclipse Bistro) eventually would become.

As one who has watched the changes on Union Street, Constantinou says, “There are so many positive things happening in the area. Little Italy has evolved and it’s exciting to see the wealth of new restaurants opening here.”

Why Union Street?

In the ‘90s, Union Street consisted of restaurants that focused largely on “red gravy and sauce,” says Carl Georigi, owner of Eclipse Bistro, at 1020 N. Union St. “There was nothing contemporary or upscale at the time in the area.”

Eclipse, the first restaurant to be part of the Platinum Dining Group, has remained an anchor at Pennsylvania Avenue and Union Street. (A full-service hospitality group, Platinum now includes five restaurants, a retail market and catering company.)

Georigi believes Eclipse has lasted more than 20 years because of its loyal customer base and his emphasis on quality “hospitality and not just service.”

Georigi fell in love with the Eclipse location because of its proximity to Pennsylvania Avenue and how quickly his customers could access his restaurant from Hockessin, Greenville and nearby Pennsylvania.

Lee Slaninko, owner of neighboring bakery Sweet Somethings Desserts, had a similar experience: He was drawn to Delaware, specifically Union Street, when looking for a space to expand his Kennett Square dessert shop.

Part of the dessert case at Sweet Somethings. Photo Jim Coarse

“In 2004,” says Slaninko, “I could find a building with a full walk-in (refrigerator) and parking. At the time, it was relatively inexpensive to open a business in Delaware.”

Over the years, he has seen a resurgence of “Restaurant Row” on North Union Street, with long-time mainstays like Eclipse, Ristorante Attilio and Mrs. Robino’s, and newcomers like 8th & Union, El Toro Cantina and V-Trap Kitchen & Lounge.

“Union Street has become a destination, and not just a pass-through to Kirkwood Highway,” says Slaninko. In addition, he sees an increase in pedestrian traffic and the sense of community that emanates from the neighborhood, something that also attracted new owners Kristin and Milton Bowen of V-Trap Kitchen & Lounge.

The newest member of the West Side community, V-Trap will open at 607 N. Lincoln St. in the former Bistro Jacques space and become one of few all-vegan restaurants in Delaware. The Bowens, who own the well-known Nude Food truck, decided to open V-Trap because they wanted to be somewhere that “didn’t already offer vegan options,” says Kristin Bowen. “We love that the restaurant is easily accessible to the neighborhood.”

Bowen understands that veganism is not for everyone, but she wants to change the perception that vegans only eat salads and raw vegetables.

In fact, the menu reads more like a gastro-pub’s, with such favorites as loaded chili nachos, mushroom and pepper cheesesteak, fiesta tacos and buffalo cauliflower.

“We want our food to look good and taste good,” says Bowen. “And though it doesn’t necessarily look healthier, who wouldn’t want to eat a [vegan] cheesesteak?”

Plans for the restaurant include transforming the space into a place that “the community can use and enjoy,” including family- and kid-friendly events like cooking classes, date nights and live music.

8th & Union Ktichen bills itself as an American gastropub. Photo Jim Coarse

Growing the Little Italy Corridor

Many of those interviewed for this article mentioned the work of Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation (CDC), housed in the West Side Neighborhood House, as one of the main drivers of business and economic development on Union and Lincoln Streets.

“They’ve had a huge impact on the neighborhood and have taken concrete steps to revitalize the area,” says Brian Ashby, co-owner of 8th & Union at 801 N. Union St., which opened in 2015.

“I was familiar with the area,” Ashby says. “I owned property nearby and had early knowledge of some of the upcoming real estate development projects happening around Little Italy.” He saw great potential in the location because of these revitalization projects and incentives led by Cornerstone West CDC.

As part of its economic development plan, Cornerstone West CDC’s goals are to support existing businesses, attract new businesses to the area, and make the area around Union and Lincoln Streets a destination. For example, it aids businesses and restaurants with small business loans through its Grow Delaware Fund and its Launcher program.

“There has been momentum behind the economic development occurring on Union and Lincoln Streets,” says Sarah Lester, director of Cornerstone West CDC.

This momentum is fueled by the recent Flats development on Union Street and the Tsionas Properties Galleria Shoppes at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., both well underway. In addition, last year West Side finished the restriping of Union Street, which helped to slow traffic and improve pedestrian and bike safety.

“A benefit of slowing traffic on Union Street is that drivers and passengers can actually see the street-level improvements that have been made,” says Lester. She says a study has demonstrated that this minor change can increase the attractiveness of an area, or, in the case of Little Italy, the “corridor,” as Lester calls it.

“Our goal is to bring more people to the area and further enhance the perception of Little Italy as a dining destination,” she says. 

Luigi Vitrone, founder of the Little Italy Neighborhood Association and owner of Pastabilities Restaurant at 415 N. Lincoln St., has worked tirelessly to make Little Italy a destination for local businesses and restaurants.

The neighborhood benefited from a federal grant Vitrone received in 1995 to improve streetscaping, add smart lights and curb cuts, and most important, to install the iconic Little Italy archway. 

As for the influx of diverse restaurants now in Little Italy, Vitrone believes “the more the merrier.” He grew up in Brooklyn, where “restaurant rows” were common.

His Pastabilities is a quirky neighborhood fixture located in a colorful row home on Lincoln that’s a stone’s throw from the archway. Since its opening in 1988, Vitrone has made everything from scratch.

On its website, Pastabilities assures customers that “there are no shortcuts…we spend hours making sauces, pasta dough and desserts. When we say homemade we mean Luigi made it, by hand, right here in our kitchen.”

If all of this has made you hungry, check out the variety of cuisine offered by restaurants and food businesses along the Little Italy corridor:

American: 8th and Union; Chef Rock’s Kitchen & Catering; Eclipse Bistro; Walter’s Steakhouse

Asian: Bangkok House (Thai); China Garden Restaurant

Bar: Dead Presidents Pub & Restaurant; Rocco Italian Grill & Sports Bar; Stone Oven Pizzeria Bar & Grill

Italian: Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities; Mrs. Robino’s; Ristorante Attilio

Mexican: El Toro and El Toro Cantina

Other: Kozy Korner Restaurant (breakfast); Locale BBQ Post (barbecue); V-Trap Kitchen & Lounge (vegan)

Sandwich: Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, Yatz’s Subs and Steaks

South and Central American: El Maná Restaurant (Puerto Rican); Christa-Bell’s Caribbean Cuisine

Food Businesses: M. Fierro & Sons (Italian and South American cheese products); Papa’s Food Market (imported goods and deli); Sweet Somethings Desserts (pies, cakes and more).

So, what do you think? Please comment below.