Market Street Magic

By Pam George

It’s hard to keep Antimo DiMeo out of the kitchen. “I eat, drink and sleep food 24-7,” says the James Beard nominated chef. “It’s really a sickness. After 14-hour days, I’ll go home and fall asleep with a food book.”  

His obsession is Wilmington’s gain. DiMeo, his father Giuseppe “Pino” DiMeo and Scott Stein have launched several downtown Wilmington eateries, including Bardea Food & Drink and Bardea Steak. Next up is a wine bar and pasta restaurant on Market Street, which should open this year if construction goes as planned. A speakeasy-style bar and an oyster bar are in the works.

Since opening Bardea Food & Drink in 2018, the community has embraced the partners’ talents — and that’s saying something considering that Delaware diners aren’t always kind to out-of-state restaurateurs.

“Never in my life — and this is no BS — have I felt as connected to a community as I do with the Wilmington community,” says Stein, a Philadelphia native. “We are comfortable in our own skin here, and that’s the secret sauce.”

With the new restaurant across from the two existing establishments, that sauce is about to get sweeter. But the partners’ success in Delaware’s largest city came after other opportunities soured — for one reason or another — and at one point, the odds of landing Bardea and its offspring were not in Wilmington’s favor.

Different but the Same

Stein and Antimo DiMeo both grew up in the hospitality business. Stein’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather have owned bars since the 1930s. The first was near the Philadelphia docks — long before the phrase “Old City” was coined. Dockworkers came in for a shot and a beer, but after I-95 separated the riverfront from the bar, Stein’s grandfather sold the bar and moved to the suburbs. 

DiMeo, who grew up in Eagleville, Pennsylvania, near Exton, spoke Italian as his first language and worked in his parents’ pizzerias. (His father currently owns DiMeo’s Pizza on Market Street, and he previously owned several Pennsylvania pizzerias.) Both men went to college only to realize that the restaurant business was in their blood.

For DiMeo, the realization struck early, and he left school. “Cooking is literally what I wanted to do,” he says. “I would find myself reading about food — pizza dough was my first obsession.” So, he left the U.S. to hone his chops in a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Italy.

After graduating from Penn State, Stein started a boutique marketing firm for internet-based companies. One day he looked at his partner and said, “We should start a bar. I think that would be cool.” His partner disagreed. “It clicked that day,” Stein says. “I just walked out and didn’t come back.” 

He approached his father, David, about opening a business, and Red Sky debuted on Philadelphia’s Market Street in 2003. The establishment attracted a celebrity clientele, including Jay-Z and Beyonce. Working with family, however, wasn’t easy — David remained focused on the bar business, and his son was more interested in the food. Stein briefly went back to marketing before exploring restaurant opportunities, and a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Pino DiMeo, who had opened the Wilmington pizzeria. 

Pino saw the downtown district’s possibilities, and Stein agreed to meet the DiMeos in Wilmington, although he’d never been to the city. Immediately, Stein felt a connection with Antimo. “We talked about the industry and instantly bonded,” Stein recalls. 

DiMeo agrees. “I said to my dad, ‘I really like him. We have similar mindsets and a great work ethic.’”

A Matter of Timing

Stein hesitated to team up with the DiMeos, partly because the family dynamic was “deja-vu all over again.” He considered opening a restaurant in the Chestnut Hill Hotel with Chef Jay Caputo. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Caputo owned Eclipse in Rehoboth Beach and several other resort-area restaurants. The hotel had recently lost the Melting Pot, and Stein wanted to open Bardea, an “Italian-leaning American with a wood-fired pizza oven, salumi bar, pasta, wine and cocktails,” according to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Klein. 

When the liquor license was declined, Stein regrouped with the DiMeos to look at what is now Merchant Bar in Wilmington. Bryan Sikora had already taken a chance with La Fia across the street, but the out-of-towners felt it was too soon to invest in the area. Philadelphia’s Main Line, however, seemed like a safe bet — the tony suburbs were full of affluent diners. 

In Pennsylvania, however, one retail liquor license is available for every 3,000 county inhabitants. Once the quota is met, the state will issue no new liquor licenses. Without a bar, Bardea became Arde Osteria & Pizzeria. The initial review from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan was not stellar, partly because he visited shortly after the opening. Moreover, the seafood company had placed fish in the dough proofer, and the kitchen could not offer pizza that night.

However, brothers Chris and Rob Buccini of The Buccini/Pollin Group were big fans, and they were determined to bring Stein and the DiMeos to Market Street. The restaurateurs were ready.

At last, the timing was right.

Welcome to Wilmington

At this point, Wilmington reminded Stein more and more of Philadelphia’s Fishtown district, which had risen from the ashes to become a hip place for dining and entertainment. He saw the changes since he’d toured the Merchant Bar location.

The 5,000-square-foot Bardea Food & Drink took up residence in the old Kennedy Fried Chicken space at Seventh and Market streets. Antimo’s time in Italy wowed diners and critics, who were impressed with his talent. In 2019, the James Beard Foundation named Bardea one of the country’s best new restaurants.

“That really changed the trajectory for the restaurant and my career,” DiMeo says. “And it’s evolved from that day.”

Craig LaBan sang a different tune in 2022. “DiMeo has blossomed into one of the region’s most exciting and creative chefs,” he wrote. Indeed, that same year, the Beard Foundation selected DiMeo as a semifinalist for the Best Chef mid-Atlantic region award.

Stein acknowledges that the restaurant can get loud. “Sometimes, I walk through the room, and I feel like the ground shakes,” he says. “There’s so much energy.” And that’s fine by him. “I see people of all ages, and it’s a compliment to see someone over 40 nodding their heads and having fun. And after COVID, people are OK with a little noise. It’s exciting.”

The collaboration with The Buccini/Pollin Group continued to blossom with Pizzeria Bardea and Taqueria El Chingon, both of which are in the DE.CO Food Hall. The latter originated during the early days of COVID, when takeout was strong, and Bardea’s kitchen team got creative. Indeed, DiMeo used the time to read cookbooks and play with fermentation. He also became a fan of lamination — the process of stretching dough so thin that you can see through it. Then it’s folded up in a neat package to create layers.

 “The team jokes that if I’m given too much time, they will come in and the whole menu will be different,” DiMeo says. 

Bardea Steak was in the planning stages before the coronavirus hit the state, and in spring 2020, Stein wondered how to keep Bardea Food & Drink going, let alone start a new endeavor. But Bardea Restaurant Group pushed through, and the steakhouse opened in 2022.

What’s Next?

Between the two restaurants is The Garden, a landscaped courtyard that will open in warm weather with a menu. The new four-season restaurant across Market Street will feature fresh pasta — don’t go if you’re on keto, Stein jokes. “We want it to be a neighborhood spot — it’s more approachable.” DiMeo says the menu is inspired by the food his Italian grandmother made.

At press time, the new eatery did not have a name — the initial plan to start every concept with Bardea was scrapped. “It was too confusing,” Stein acknowledges. He wanted to name the new restaurant Addison’s after his daughter, but there is already a Michelin-star restaurant in San Diego with that name. 

Like the first two restaurants, the newcomer will have innovative “snacks” and a bar, which initially was not in the plans. “But how can we open a pasta and wine bar without an actual bar?” Stein asks. Moreover, the Wayne experiment proved that a bar-less establishment is not in his DNA. 

The mention of the bar brings us to the next project or two. “We have preliminary plans for an oyster bar and a speakeasy-type bar,” Stein reveals. “It’s a no-brainer with my experience.” One of the properties belongs to BPG; the other is the restaurant group’s building.

The team has received offers to open eateries in Greenville, New York and Washington, D.C. That’s not in the plans, however. “Our hearts are in downtown Wilmington,” Stein says. “For the next five years, I see us staying in our zone, being really focused on our block and the area between Eighth and Ninth on Market Street.”

Stein feels safe and comfortable walking Market Street at night, and a few more bars will only increase the traffic, he says. Many of the pedestrians are from Philly, says Stein, who tracks the area codes on the reservations. However, it is the locals who beamed with pride when the James Beard Foundation semifinalists were released, he adds.

Stein just wanted restaurants that served great food, but Pino DiMeo never doubted the team’s ability to earn a James Beard nomination. “It was weird,” Stein says. “He had the foresight. He always believed we could do it in Wilmington.”

And he was right.