Not Fussy. Not Fancy. Just good Italian
Waaayyy back in March 2012 I cooed excitedly on these pages about a sign on a tiny storefront in downtown Rehoboth that read: “Touch of Italy - Opening Soon!” Visions of the salty freshness of handmade mozzarella and authentic New York hero sandwiches danced in my head. (Truth be told, that’s more or less a daily occurrence for me.)
Old news, of course. But the fact remains that food for many Italians is more than just sustenance. It’s a culture – a cohesive energy that brings families together and celebrates life. And as Touch of Italy approaches its 10th year in the Cape Region, the long lines at their three sit-down restaurants suggest that Italians – and non-Italians – appreciate an authentic salumeria and pasticceria right smack in the middle of it all. The heady fragrance of olives and fresh bread, along with earthen notes of charcuterie and aged cheeses is enough to whip your taste buds into a Tuscan frenzy.
Those of us who count ourselves among the salami-starved and cheese-challenged have Bronx, N.Y. native Bob Ciprietti to thank for bringing this little bit of his hometown to the beach. Ciprietti’s father grew up in Italy and worked as a tailor (along with his father’s father and brother) in the garment district of lower Manhattan. Bob’s mother’s family owned an Italian restaurant in Pennsylvania that stayed open for 55 years. Around 2001, when Ciprietti bought a vacation home in Bethany Beach, there were no local places specializing in Italian provisions that compared to his childhood memories of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
So on holidays, he’d trek back home, fill his pickup with all sorts of cured meats, cheeses and breads, trade some of it with local friends for cookies and wine, and throw a huge party at his place in Bethany. Bob moved to the beach full time in 2003, and after a few years, talk of a deli and sandwich shop began. He and a few like-minded partners teamed up to make the Baltimore Avenue Touch of Italy a reality. The overstuffed deli cases, imported goodies and fresh mozzarella made everybody feel at home in that crowded little piece of Italy just a hop, skip and a waddle from the water.
Speaking of mozzarella, one of the values-added at today’s TOI restaurants is that soft, milky cheese. Back when they first opened, Ciprietti enlisted his longtime friend Orazio Carciotto, New York’s award-winning mozzarella maven and owner of the famed Casa Della Mozzarella at 187th and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Orazio worked closely with Touch of Italy, teaching them to perfect the softly striated texture of the snow-white delight, with a smidgen of salt to set off a party in your mouth. It’s still made daily here at the beach in the Casa Della Mozzarella tradition.
Back to the history lesson: You can’t keep a good concept down, and it wasn’t long before the tiny deli/carryout expanded into a full-service, sit-down eatery in Lewes – complete with a bar and wood-fired pizzas. Fast-forward to when the old Ocean Liquors in Rehoboth’s Shore Plaza morphed into yet another Touch of Italy. Shortly thereafter, Ciprietti’s friendship with Ocean City’s Harrison Group hoteliers gave birth to Touch of Italy No. 3 tucked into the hi-rise Holiday Inn at 67th and the ocean.
A couple of summers ago, Touch of Italy took on the entire food and beverage services at the Sunset Island Clubhouse on the bay in Ocean City. Complete with two swimming pools, live music, indoor and outdoor dining, and a tiki bar on the sand, Sunset Island’s menu has taken on a life of its own. In fact, some of the new goodies on Touch of Italy menus were created there.
And the beat goes on. The Rehoboth Touch of Italy is about to expand into an adjacent space at Shore Plaza, complete with event rooms, a demo kitchen and additional seating for the restaurant. In Ocean City, a huge outdoor dining area added this summer almost doubles the seating in the restaurant. The cozy, grotto-like setting is complete with fountains, international décor and huge Italian murals, created by none other than award-winning artist John Donato. And, trust me, there’s more to come.
Bob Ciprietti is the first to insist that none of this would have been possible were it not for his closely knit family of friends and employees. Lisa Doak keeps the catering side of Touch of Italy running smoothly. She started out as a board member of the culinary scholarship foundation that I share with TOI, and her organizational skills have increased the catering business substantially. Regional Manager Matty Pfau started 10 years ago as a server in the Lewes restaurant. He quickly progressed into managerial positions and now controls the day-to-day operations at all the facilities. Matty is never without a smile and that infectious laugh.
Another devoted member of the Touch of Italy team is Peter Todd Scioli. “PT” is Italian through and through. He keeps the Sunset Island operation in good order, but, like the Energizer Bunny (and Ciprietti), can magically materialize at any of the stores at any time. He’s known for his impromptu Facebook Live presentations at various events. They are always hilarious.
All the restaurants have a retail marketplace adjacent to the deli cases. Traditional specialties include freshly baked Italian loaves, imported pastas, olive oils and balsamic vinegars, as well as cheeses and menu items for grab ‘n’ go. The bakery case overflows with a tantalizing mélange of Italian cookies, cakes and pastries.
The continued success of Touch of Italy and similarly well-run restaurants has helped attract even more expanded menus, concepts and dining choices here to the beach. I think we’re ready for them.