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A wood-fired pioneer turns 20 in Lewes

October 12, 2018

I’ve always had a pretty good “taste memory.” It’s been years, but with a little concentration I can still recall the flavors of the Teen Twist, the barbecue sandwich and the Orange Freeze at Hot Shoppes. Or the moist and oniony buy-‘em-by-the-bag sliders from Little Tavern. Or the New Orleans-flavor of Morrison’s pot pies. Alas, they are no more. 

Shortly after I started writing about food and restaurants here at the beach, Lewes friends insisted I try the wood-oven pizza at an unassuming little storefront on Kings Highway. The aroma of smoldering oak at Mr. P’s seemed strangely familiar, and when I took a bite, the mid-‘90s came flooding back: It’s a slow night at my BBQ restaurant in Bethesda, Md. I love my own food, but sometimes enough is enough. So I’m slinking out the back door to snag a slice at the nearby Il Forno Pizzeria. Lo and behold, it tasted just like Il Forno! But how could that be? 

Never one to have an unexpressed thought, I shared my trip on the tastebud time machine with Mr. P’s friendly owner, Rick Thomas. Well, wouldn’t you know it: He had been the manager of that very same Il Forno. In all probability, it was he who wielded the pizza cutter for that barbecue sauce-splattered guy (me). Small world, huh? 

Long before he mastered the intricacies of the pizza cutter, Rick attended Frostburg State College. He majored in Wildlife Management (this alone qualified him to run a restaurant at the beach). In his own words, Rick was “enjoying college a little too much,” so he took a break. His fraternity buddy’s dad, John Perrin, gave him a job at Il Forno Pizzeria in Gaithersburg, Md. Rick washed dishes, ran the register and bused tables. 

He finished college, but the bug had bitten. “I loved the restaurant lifestyle, and I preferred talking to people rather than animals.” Rick became manager of the Bethesda Il Forno, and eventually purchased the Gaithersburg location. Restaurant ownership is punishment enough for anybody, and in 1998 he sold his share to the fraternity brother whose dad had given him his first job. 

Rick bounced around for a while, even bouncing as far as Maui to manage an Outback Steakhouse. In the meantime, John Perrin sold the restaurants, moved to Lewes, and he opened Mr. P’s. Health problems arose, and Perrin asked Rick to take over, and maybe even buy the place someday.

Fast-forward a bit, and in January 2011, Rick became the sole owner of the restaurant, and Mr. P’s will celebrate 20 years in business this coming New Year’s Day. In November 2012, the venerable John Perrin moved on to that great pizzeria in the sky. 

Thomas makes no bones about the fact that the fire is all-important. The hulking Ambrogi wood-burning oven is handcrafted in Milan, Italy. It works its magic by concentrating up to 1,000 degrees from the oak logs directly onto the lava-stone cooking surface. The top of the chamber curves downward so the hot rock radiates directly onto the pies. The exhaust is at the front of the oven door so cold air doesn’t interfere with the cooking process. 

Baking wood-fired pizza is both an art and a science. Ozmar, the pizzaiolo at Mr. P’s, knows exactly how to coax perfectly puffy pies out of the beast every time. He makes allowances for the behavior of the yeast, dough and cheese as humidity and outside temperatures vary. His many years of experience have kept the Ambrogi glowing at full efficiency. 

Since I first ventured into Mr. P’s, Rick has acknowledged the eternal connection between pizza and beer. He now sports a huge selection of local and not-so-local crafts (19 of them on tap!) and offers both nitro and cask systems. What is that, you might ask? You should drop by and find out. 

Rick likes to funnel some of his profits into the local Lewes community. He donates pizzas to churches, schools, kids’ sports teams, fire departments … “You have to give to get a little,” smiles Thomas. So treat your taste memory to a crunchy slice at Mr. P’s. Rick’s worthy causes will thank you for it.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.