Nick Caggiano Jr. was 6 years old when his parents Nick and Joan opened Nicola Pizza on North First Street in Rehoboth.
“I was the cheap labor,” said Caggiano, laughing.
Forty-five years later, Nick Jr. said it’s the consistent level of service; good, quality food; and the family-operated feel that bring longtime customers back and new customers coming in.
The Rehoboth landmark celebrated its birthday June 11 – a big enough occasion that the Delaware Public Archives' daily This Day in Delaware History email included the restaurant’s 1971 opening.
The dining room of the original location on North First Street was decorated in bunches of yellow, red and pizza-shaped balloons. Customers were chowing down on pizza and the one-of-a-kind Nic-o-bolis.
Randi Klein and Jodi Korth, of Gaithersburg, Md., said they have both been eating Nicola Pizza for more than three decades.
“Since I was 4,” said Klein. When asked what keeps her coming back, she said, emphatically, “It’s the food, baby. We come down to visit a few times a year, and this is always the first place we visit.”
Crofton, Md. residents Tom and Diane Nagle love Nicola Pizza so much they know it’s 103 miles from their home to the restaurant’s front doors. The couple have been coming to the pizzeria since meeting at a house on Dodd Avenue, just outside of Dewey Beach. The couple and their friends would come in and take over the whole place, said Tom.
Tom said he knew the restaurant was celebrating 45 years sometime this summer, but it was luck showing up on the actual birthday.
“We can’t say enough good things about this place,” he said.
In the original days of the restaurant, the Nic-o-bolis were served on tin foil with a plastic fork. Tom said they would bring their own silverware to handle what amounts to a full pizza rolled in half.
“You can’t eat a Nic with a plastic fork. That would be sacrilegious,” said Tom.
Rehoboth resident Johnny Forever and his 9-year-old grandson Brody Carpnito moved to the area nine months ago from North Carolina.
Forever said the family happened into Nicola’s shortly after they moved.
“He likes how the sauce doesn’t have any lumps,” said Forever, pointing to Brody.
It was a busy day, but the younger Nick was more than happy to talk for few minutes about the restaurant, saying some of the waitresses and cooks have been part of the restaurant family for 20 years or more, he said.
Head cook Byron Mutchler has been making Nic-o-bolis since January 1978. His wife Pat, the restaurant’s head waitress, has been working there since December 1977.
“She’s got me beat by two months,” said Mutchler as he folded together four Nic-o-bolis – clearly a muscle-memory skill he could do with his eyes closed.
When asked to approximate the number of Nic-o-bolis he’s made in his nearly four decades of employment, Mutchler looked up with a don’t-be-ridiculous look on his face and said, “too many to count.”
When asked if he enjoyed working at Nicola Pizza, Mutchler said, “if not, I’d have left a long time ago.”
Caggiano chimed in, “He wishes he was fishing on some boat.”
Caggiano said the restaurant started serving a full selection of Italian dishes – spaghetti, ziti, stuffed shells, meatballs and salads – in 1990, but the biggest change was the addition of the two-story Rehoboth Avenue location just around the corner from the original. When the restaurant first opened, there were four employees; now, between full time and part-time, there are 100, he said.
Unlike its updated younger sibling, the original restaurant’s operation hasn’t changed much since its opening days. Three of the original ovens are still in use. Wait staff still hand writes food orders. Food distribution is still managed by placing tickets under heavy metal sticks on the counter next to the register and scratching them off when the order is complete.
Caggiano said it’s hard to imagine the restaurant is 45 years old, and he doesn’t know what the future will bring. He said his 12-year-old son hasn’t shown too much interest in being the third generation to operate one of the Cape Region’s most recognized eating establishments.
“Times have changed,” he said, proudly laughing, taking a moment to enjoy 45 years of success and to recall his days of cheap labor. “For now, we’ll just keep making good food.”
Nicola Pizza’s two Rehoboth locations, 8 N. First St. and 71 Rehoboth Ave, open daily at 11 a.m. It can be reached at 302-227-6211.