Before Rehoboth Beach became a foodie haven, there was the Back Porch Café.
The original Rehoboth fine-dining restaurant, the Back Porch is celebrating its 40th season this year, and like many restaurants that would come after it, it started with three entrepreneurs who were worried they were in over their head.
“I remember being very scared, as we were so young, and it was such a big project,” cofounder Victor Pisapia said. “I also remember Rehoboth being so small and a cultural backwater when it came to good food. The hottest thing going at the time was the Dinner Bell Inn and everyone raved about their crab imperial.”
Pisapia, a waiter at the Dinner Bell Inn, wanted to collaborate on a restaurant with fellow waiter Libby York.
York recalled those early days. “I know this may sound funny but I remember clearly the moment I got the inspiration to start the Porch. I was in our house in Milford around Christmastime, and Victor Pisapia and I had been talking about opening our own place,” York said.
“The original concept was to serve fresh food from the local farmers, nothing frozen or deep fried, which is basically what, unknown to us, Alice Waters was creating around the same time at Chez Panisse in Berkeley,” she said.
York and Pisapia started the Back Porch using $5,000 left by York’s grandfather and $2,000 from her then-husband, Ted Fisher, who became the third partner.
Their idea was to first call it the Beach Plum Café. "Which doesn’t seem to fit at all now, does it?” Pisapia said.
York said they planned to open on First Street, but the partners settled on Rehoboth Avenue, at the spot of the old Hotel Marvel.
The partners worked all winter of 1973 to open by the spring; York said Fisher salvaged some boards that were used to make tables. She said help also came from the Reinke family, owners of the Crab Pot on Rehoboth Avenue, who gave them their first refrigerator. It was dubbed “the shocker” because of the electric shock it would sometimes give when opened. Pisapia said his family gave him cooking utensils, and Fisher built all the furniture, piece by piece.
Among their early hires were Leo Medisch and Keith Fitzgerald, who would later become central figures in the history of the Back Porch.
“I came to the beach to help my college friend Victor Pisapia open the Back Porch Café in 1974 and was going to stay two weeks,” Fitzgerald said.
“I remember being scared out of my brain on opening night, trying to cook three dishes to serve. I felt like a doctor in an operating room,” Pisapia said. “I remember the owner of the Camel’s Hump on Rehoboth Avenue coming over on opening night of the Porch and yelling at me for making moussaka, as he said it was his dish. He eventually got over it.”
Pisapia said he would get the fish from a fisherman in Ocean View, pick the strawberries himself and make all the bread, yogurt, sprouts and cakes from scratch.
“I remember wanting the Porch to be special, like the little cafés Libby and I saw in Europe,” he said.
In 1980, Pisapia left to start another Rehoboth institution, Blue Moon. York and Fisher split up; she started a career as a successful jazz singer, which still keeps her busy playing dates around the country. Pisapia relocated to Australia in 1994, where he continued his career as a restaurateur and chef. He currently runs Victor’s Food, a one-stop shop for catering services, cooking classes and regional food tours.
Among her favorite memories are those evenings when everything was humming along. "I knew we had provided wonderful moments for them. It's not just about the great food, although that's essential, but about providing an experience,” York said.
A new era begins
As the original ownership moved out, several employees, including Medisch, Fitzgerald and Marilyn Spitz, kept the Back Porch going.
“Not knowing how much any of us did not know in the beginning certainly helped, or I doubt anyone would have even attempted doing a restaurant,” Spitz said.
Spitz came to Rehoboth in 1980 to windsurf. That summer, she met and fell in love with Fisher and began working at the Back Porch. She became a partner after Fisher’s death in 1984.
“I never imagined that 34 years later I would still be, not only living in this wonderful community, but continuing to be partners with such incredibly kind people,” Spitz said.
She said one of the keys to the restaurant's success is consistency and making people feel like they are guests in someone’s home. The farm-to-table concept started by Pisapia and York has remained. She said the biggest change has been keeping up with technology; Spitz said the Back Porch was one of the last restaurants in Rehoboth to have a point-of-sale computer system.
One of the constants was Medisch, who started out as a kitchen worker and worked his way up to chef. Medisch was known as a kind and caring person with a creative palate and calm disposition who inspired great loyalty in his employees.
For the last 10 years of his life, Medisch battled illness, first HIV and then cancer. Medisch died Aug. 21 at age 60 after a bout with lung cancer.
“He was always the modulating force for the kitchen and floor staff when conflict would occasionally arise,” Spitz said. “He was a great and patient teacher and helped the Back Porch gain respect.”
Chef Tim McNitt, who trained under Medisch for 18 years, took on the role of executive chef as Medisch’s health declined.
“Tim is committed to the ideals of quality, creativity and consistency which we expect will carry us forward in this vibrant community,” Spitz said.
Fitzgerald said working in the restaurant has been like getting another college education. "After almost 40 years, it is a daily learning curve, which I still enjoy. To be doing something you enjoy and can learn from and have pride in has been an extraordinary experience," he said
“I have no future plans. The past 40 years were not really planned and turned out so well, so why start now?” Fitzgerald said.