More than a touch: It’s the real thing
If you’ve ever tried to snag a dinnertime seat at the Touch of Italy in Lewes or on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth Beach, you know what I mean when I say that they must be doing something right. The magical combination of salumeria, pasticceria and trattoria has become a magnet for those who enjoy well-executed Italian food, wood-fired pizzas and fresh baked goods served in an upbeat, deli-like atmosphere.
But when the Touch of Italy principals announced they were taking over the Reflections restaurant in the Holiday Inn at 67th and the beach in Ocean City, it seemed they might have bitten off more than they could chew. After all, not only must the hotel-based restaurant be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it’s also responsible for a couple of oceanfront pool bars and onsite event catering. But co-owner Bob Ciprietti was way ahead of everybody. While the naysayers were doubting that he could pull it off, he was in New York City negotiating with a high-visibility Italian restaurateur who eventually sold his successful Manhattan eatery in order to relocate to Ocean City along with a hand-picked kitchen crew.
Anybody who enjoys Food Network will recognize the name Ciro Verdi. The celebrated chef/owner of Da Ciro Ristorante on Lexington Avenue comes to us with an impressive resume and even more impressive talents. Ciro was born to a 100 percent Italian family in Astoria, Queens. His first trip to Italy was when he was 4 years old, and every summer thereafter he flew there - alone (those were different days!) - to stay with his godfather and godmother in Rome. His godfather had been a pastry chef at Ferrara Pastry Shop in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and young Ciro was fascinated by the activity in the kitchens.
Ciro’s uncle owned three restaurants in Naples, and Ciro quickly learned how to operate a wood-fired oven (an as-yet-undiscovered delight in the U.S.) and to stretch pizza dough properly. Around 1984, Wolfgang Puck brought wood-fired cooking into the limelight, and New Yorkers jumped onto that tasty bandwagon. Ciro honed his skills there while learning the finer points of cooking from respected chefs.
From ‘86 to around ‘89 Ciro kept up with the demand for wood-fired pies, first at Mezzaluna, then at Mezzogiorno restaurant. A year after that, at Chelsea’s nobly rustic (and now closed) Le Madri restaurant, he discovered the mild, soft-ripened Robiola cheese. He knew that a special dish had to be created to spotlight this creamy combination of milk from cows, goats and sheep. Ciro had served Italian sandwiches on a thin, toasty focaccia, and after much experimentation, combined that with the delicious cheese. And thus was born the Focaccia Robiola pizza. And people loved it. Alongside other accolades, the New York Daily News crowed, “If they served grilled cheese in heaven, this would be what you’d get!”
At this point Ciro was hanging out with an up-and-coming New York chef who shared his love for late-night hamburgers. That chef was Bobby Flay. The two friends catered high-profile events like the Grammy Awards after-parties, and Verdi introduced Flay to the Focaccia Robiola. He appeared on Flay’s Boy Meets Grill on the fledgling Food Network, and eventually performed on Throwdown, instructing the TV chef on the finer points of crafting that signature dish. Ironically, Flay lost on that episode, but the attendees at the TV shoot went crazy over the pizza.
In ’95 Ciro opened Da Ciro Ristorante on Lexington Avenue. Built around a glowing, wood-fired oven, it was an instant hit. Fast-forward to a golf outing a few years later when he met avid golfer and builder/developer Bob Ciprietti. The bigger-than-life Italian dreamed of introducing Rehoboth Beach to the meats, cheeses, pastas and other delicacies he had grown up with on his beloved Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. When the first full-service Touch of Italy opened in Lewes, Ciro trained the local boys to run the wood-burning oven in the classic Italian style.
Fast-forward yet again. Ciro Verdi is now part-owner and executive chef at the sprawling Touch of Italy in the large and very pink Holiday Inn on the sand in Ocean City. A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon about 45 minutes after they received their final approvals, they decided to quietly unlock the doors to see what would happen. By that Sunday night they had served 3,000 meals. Count ‘em: Three thousand! Yes, they must be doing something right.