The Martuscelli family’s restaurants are Delaware-area icons

Gianmarco and his grandfather Giovanni Martuscelli, 1989.

It was the summer of 1978, and Giuseppe and Anna Martuscelli were worried. The couple had relocated from Philadelphia to Glasgow, Del., to open a small Italian restaurant. After three months, their partners had pulled out, citing concerns about the area’s viability. On New Year’s Eve 1977, not a single customer had stepped through the door.

The Martuscellis had scraped together $20,000 to make La Casa Pasta their own. Still, the lack of sales was dire. Then Otto Dekom came to dine. The taciturn News Journal critic ordered mussels fra diavolo. “I have never had them as good as any restaurant this side of the Pennsylvania Line, and rarely on the other,” he wrote. The antipasto was “generous,” the house-made lasagna was “exceptional,” and the zabaglione was “delicious.” In all, the food and service were “very good.”

More than 40 years later, La Casa Pasta is the flagship of the Martuscelli Restaurant Group. Holdings also include Klondike Kate’s Restaurant & Bar in Newark, and the Chesapeake Inn (turned 25 in July) and Shipwatch Inn Bed & Breakfast in Chesapeake City.

Over four decades, the family and their businesses have infiltrated customers’ hearts and become interwoven in their life stories. But it hasn’t been a smooth journey.

Anna and Giuseppe Martuscelli (center) with kids and grandkids during the Restaurant Group’s 40th anniversary celebration.

An Immigrant’s Dream

Giuseppe Martuscelli grew up in Santa Maria di Castellabate, a seaside Italian town near Salerno. Giuseppe, the oldest of seven children, helped his mother cook the Mediterranean seafood his fisherman father brought home for dinner. After joining the Italian navy, Giuseppe became a ship’s cook. He picked up new ideas and recipes at the different ports of call, including the U.S.

In 1967, he moved to Philadelphia, where he met wife-to-be Anna Montefusco at a dance in South Philly. The young Italian woman made coats and old buttons at a Woolworth’s store. The couple, who wed in 1973, have two sons, Gianmarco and Alessandro.

Giuseppe worked in Philadelphia restaurants, including the Copper Penny, but had high ambitions. “My husband says he wanted to open a restaurant, but it was a lot of money at that time,” recalled Anna in a Delaware Restaurant Association video.

When he learned about the Glasgow location, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a big step for Anna. “I didn’t know that Delaware was another state,” she confided in the footage. The family relocated to the Strawberry Run Apartments before finding a home in the Four Seasons community.

Not only were the Martuscellis living in a new state, but they were running a fledgling business with limited English and schooling, son Gianmarco notes. And they were launching a restaurant in a part of Newark that was still considered rural. Because food suppliers didn’t service the area, Giuseppe trekked to Philadelphia three times a week to buy supplies. As he expanded the menu, he traveled to Italy to purchase items he couldn’t find in the U.S.

The restaurant applied for a liquor license in March 1978, which sweetened its appeal. But it was The Morning News critic’s review that piqued interest. In fact, in December 1978, a La Casa Pasta newspaper ad included “Recommended by Otto Dekkom.” The misspelling of Dekom’s last name didn’t stop customers from coming.

Growing a Business

One loyal customer was Ed Richitelli, a championship amateur golfer and entrepreneur. “He was prominent in the Newark area back in the day,” Gianmarco says. “He used to bring in all the who’s who of Newark to eat dinner. He got us on the map and sponsored my dad for citizenship.”

The Four Seasons Shopping Center included a doughnut shop, liquor store, hair salon and 7-11 when La Casta Pasta opened. As stores left, the Martuscellis gradually consumed the center. The liquor store, for instance, became the banquet room.

Gianmarco Martuscelli with his mother Anna.

The family made the jump to Wilmington in 1988 when Giuseppe and his brother-in-law purchased Daniel’s, a French restaurant in the Devon, and turned it into Positano. After a few years, they sold it.

In 1995, the previous home of Dockside Yacht Club & Restaurant & Marina, which burned in a 1993 fire, went up for auction. The Martscuellis were very familiar with Chesapeake City, Md. Family member Generoso “Joe” Montefusco has owned The Tap Room since 1981.

In part, Giuseppe and Anna wanted to buy the property to keep another crab house from opening. Their $600,000 winning bid resulted in the Chesapeake Inn Restaurant & Marina, which opened in June 1996.

“Come by Land or Sea,” an ad invited. “Waterfront Dining Upstairs & Casual Dining Downstairs on the Deck.” That first summer, the deck was the place to be, and that is still the case.

“We didn’t realize how many boaters come in, and they’re not dressed for upstairs,” recalls Gianmarco, who joined the family business full-time just in time for the new restaurant’s opening. Outdoor orders overwhelmed the kitchen, which serviced both areas. One employee’s sole job was to unload the food from a dumbwaiter that dropped to the first level and put it on trays for servers. “It was crazy,” says Gianmarco. Today, there are three kitchens in the facility, including one for the banquet facility, added in 2007.

Although busy, things were going well until 2010. On the night before Mother’s Day, an electrical malfunction in La Casa Pasta sparked a fire resulting in $80,000 in damages.

Not only would the restaurant lose Mother’s Day income, but it was also closed for University of Delaware graduation dinners. The family quickly moved as many guests as possible — along with core employees — to Chesapeake Inn. The cost of renovations topped $500,000, but it gave the family the chance to brighten rooms with light paint and new fixtures.

Six years later, the hospitality group purchased Klondike Kate’s Restaurant & Bar, giving customers three different concepts in the greater Newark area.

The Next Generation

Gianmarco now runs the day-to-day operations. He and Alessandro grew up in the restaurants. “I dreaded those summers when I had to do the market runs” [to Philadelphia], recalls Gianmarco, who also made salads, bussed tables and washed dishes. “You had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning. Then you had to drive back and prep.”

It wasn’t always easy working for their father. The man of few words found his voice in the kitchen. In the days before computers, cooks used written tickets, and Giuseppe lost patience when food wasn’t ready. Handheld devices and touchscreen terminals have helped organize the chaos, Gianmarco says. “It’s mellower these days.”

Alessandro, who went to Boston University, is now the lead attorney and vice president of a pharmaceutical company in the Boston area. “He actually is the foodie of the family,” his older brother says. “He loves to cook and is a great chef.”

After graduating from Salesianum High School in 1992, Gianmarco went to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to study business management. In his senior year, he met wife-to-be Gilda Santoro, a food marketing major. (The couple later learned that Anna’s family had rented rooms from Gilda’s grandparents when they arrived in the U.S.

The couple has three children: Annabella, who will attend the University of South Carolina; Ava, a Padua Academy student; and Joseph, who goes to Mt. Aviat Academy, a Roman Catholic school.

Running a family business is not easy, especially in the hospitality industry. Gilda handles human resources and the back office while Gianmarco travels between restaurants. Anna and Giuseppe still have a say in decisions involving La Casa Pasta.

Part of the Community

In the early days, Giuseppe worked 80 to 90 hours a week. Keeping the marriage together required “patience, faith and sacrifice,” Anna maintains.

Over the years, the family has provided the setting for lovebirds. Yours truly had her first date with her husband-to-be at La Casa Pasta. I’m not alone.

Carol and Dick Vermeil are longtime regulars of La Casa Pasta.

“My husband and I also had our first date at La Casa Pasta in 2002,” wrote Lauren Ann Bacon on a Facebook post. “We celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary Friday. We visit Chesapeake Inn all the time. The kids just love it.”

In February 2020, Susan Taylor Matthias went on her first date with her boyfriend.  “We had a great meal, two bottles of wine and an amazing server (Casey),” she wrote. “We were so full we couldn’t order dessert. However, Casey brought us some cinnamon ice cream to share and wrote ‘Happy First Date’ on the plate. It’s now our special place.”

In 2000, Greg Manners played in a band that performed at the Chesapeake Inn four days a week. An employee introduced Manners to her sister. They’ve been married for 17 years.

The family and their restaurants have contributed to the community in other ways. “Gianmarco has coached our boys at Canal Little League and the Martuscelli Restaurant Group has sponsored teams and supported the league,” Bacon noted. The restaurant group founded the Brett “B.J.” Harris Scholarship Fund to honor the Chesapeake Inn server who died of a brain tumor in 2012.

In 2019, the Delaware Restaurant Association awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Martuscelli family for their “commitment and dedication to the local community and their employees.”

The family is just fulfilling its mission. Restaurants are the cornerstone of most communities, Gianmarco says. “It’s where people come to celebrate important events in their lives.”

The success of the Martuscellis’ restaurants are cases in point.

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