Above: Philip and MarySue DiFebo began their enterprise as a seafood market in Elsmere. Fifty years later, it’s a Wilmington dining destination.
By Pam George
Photos by Jim Course
It’s a Wednesday evening in late August and judging by the packed parking lot
at Feby’s Fishery, not everyone is at the beach. Every seat in the Wilmington restaurant’s first-floor dining room is occupied. The diners are all ages. There are multigenerational families with young children, middle-aged couples and an adult son with his father.
Soon, the reason for the crowd is evident. Wednesday is lobster night, and many guests are cracking 1¼-pound whole Maine lobsters. However, others enjoy the classics: fried shrimp, crab cakes or crab imperial.
The business has been a Delaware institution since 1974, when it started as an Elsmere seafood market. The eve of the 50th anniversary is an excellent time to examine the secrets to Feby’s success.
All in the Family
“Feby” is short for “DiFebo,” and Philip DiFebo and his sons have heard all the name variations. “We’ve been called Feby, Feebs or Feebo all our lives,” says Philip DiFebo Jr. (He’s not technically a junior but prefers it over “Little Philip.” There was another reason for using the nickname. In 1975. Philip’s father, Dominic, owned Dominic A. DiFebo & Sons, a hardwood flooring company.
A fisherman’s son, Dominic, was born in 1914 in Piscata, Italy, and came to the U.S. in 1917. He started the flooring business in 1938. However, the enthusiastic entrepreneur also owned Feby’s Marine Supplies from 1958 to 1960. He and his wife, Angelina, had five sons and one daughter, and the boys worked in the family business, which they ran out of the older couple’s home. After dropping off the work vans, the men and their families sat down to dinner.
“My grandmother would have a pot of gravy and meatballs on the stove,” recalls Lisa DiFebo-Osias, Philip’s niece. Those meals would influence the menu at her DiFebo’s restaurants in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach.
When the hardwood floor business hit a lull, Philip, the youngest son, needed another income source. Why not open a seafood market?
From Elsmere to Wilmington
In 1974, Hadfield’s Seafood was the leading go-to store for seafood, and it was on Route 202. Philip and his wife, MarySue, who wed in 1969, opened Feby’s at 1111 New Road next to the Elsmere Fire Co.
“We had a big lobster tank in the front,” MarySue recalls. “We had fish, clams — almost everything we have now and anything that was in season.” The shop also sold Scottish salmon and a few items from the West Coast.
In 1975, live lobsters were $2.99 a pound. Christmas specials included squid (calamari), salt cod (baccala), octopus, smoked fish and live eels. DiFebo-Osias, who was 14 when she started working at Feby’s, remembers skinning the slithering eels.
“You had to grab the eels live, but I would do it,” she says. “To this day, I can out-shuck some of the best shuckers.”
Her sister, Michelle, and brother, Bobby, also worked in the market.
The Elsmere store’s takeout business was so brisk the DiFebos built a small bar with four seats, most of which were occupied by DuPont Co. employees. Nearly 10 years later, the business needed more space for the restaurant. Dominic’s sons Bob (Lisa’s father) and Johnny had been building spec houses, and the family knew people in the building industry, including Robert Suppe of RC Fabricators. They pooled their resources to create the restaurant, which has a separate bar and attached market.
Feby’s opened at 3701 Lancaster Pike on Feb. 22, 1984.
Attaining Icon Status
For the 10th anniversary, Feby’s sold live lobsters for $3.99 a pound and the lunch special featured Maryland crab soup or Manhattan clam chowder and a flounder sandwich at a reasonable $2.95. Of course, prices crept up over the years — not much you can do about inflation — but Feby’s retained an old-school vibe without becoming a relic.
For instance, Feby’s still offers complimentary warm rolls. “We go out to dinner at the beach, and they don’t even offer bread anymore,” MarySue says with surprise. “You can’t even buy it, and I don’t mind buying it.”
Fresh is the word that faithful customers use to describe the food.
“I always ask what on the special board looks good and fresh and am always happy with what they recommend,” says Jody Beth Jaeger of Wilmington. “And when they have dayboat scallops (seasonal), I cannot get enough.”
Jaeger rarely lacks choices. The seafood market might have halibut, salmon, grouper and rockfish, and the harder-to-find orange roughy, wild blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay, and bluefish.
Local rockfish is a big seller when it’s in season. For other varieties, Philip has cultivated relationships with vendors across the country. Feby’s gets calls when boats laden with redfish and red snapper pull into the Gulf of Mexico docks.
“We order it, and the next day, we get it,” MarySue says.
She notes that you don’t need a great chef or a lot of sauces with fresh finfish. It should stand on its own with simple preparations. Ed Dwornik of Wilmington likes the lack of pretentiousness regarding the food and atmosphere. That’s not to say you won’t find an adornment or two. On a recent visit, specials included red snapper with a mango glaze over parmesan orzo.
Many customers prefer the standards, including snapper soup in a sherry-based broth and the steamed, fried or broiled seafood medley. Despite the family’s heritage, the DiFebos leave Italian dishes to Mrs. Robino’s or their niece, Lisa, at the beach. The exceptions include crabs and spaghetti and a seafood mix over spaghetti.
The restaurant is well known for specials, such as whole lobster on Mondays and Wednesdays and Dungeness crab on Thursdays.
“It’s a big hit,” MarySue says of the crabs, which are unusual in this region. “We buy direct from the West Coast and keep it in a storage freezer in Philadelphia.”
She and her husband remain at the helm, and their son, Chad, is in the family business. Regulars count on seeing the familiar faces.
“There are servers who have been there for a long time,” says Philip Jr., who now works for Sysco. “They contribute to the energy and the popularity.”
Indeed, the guests and staff have formed an informal family. After the birth of Philip Jr.’s first daughter, he received more than 200 gifts from customers.
“Think about it,” he says. “I mean, that’s incredible. It makes you feel good that people that people come to Feby’s and spend money yet think about you enough to go out and buy you a gift.”
On any given night, you’ll see Wilmington builders responsible for a wealth of local structures and communities or politicians past and present. In short, dining at Feby’s is a “Wilmington thing,” Philip Jr. says. Along with Kid Shelleen’s in Trolley Square and Mrs. Robino’s in Little Italy, Feby’s is part of a rotation. Taking your family to Feby’s is a tradition that is nearly 50 years old.
Says Philip Jr.: “As I get older, I’m just overwhelmed with pride at that accomplishment.”