The Show Must Go On

By Pam George
Photos by Joe del Tufo

If you grew up in Delaware, you likely celebrated a birthday, anniversary or Valentine’s Day at Vincente’s Italian Restaurant, and chances are good that your parents also went there on special occasions. Quite possibly, your grandparents started the tradition. That’s because the restaurant opened in the 1970s, and founder Vincent Mancari owned eateries before then. “I’ve been dining with them since they were on Concord Pike,” says Tina Louise Stewart, who was 21 then. “I’ve been following them ever since. Great family and great food.”

Like Stewart, many customers updated their address books over the years. Vincente’s was initially in Wilmington’s Little Italy before it moved to Concord Pike. The restaurant then had a Glen Mills location before settling into the Kirkwood Highway space.

But faithful fans are willing to travel for the dishes that made it famous, including the tableside Caesar salad and veal entrees. Although Vincent Mancari died in 2013, his larger-than-life persona still permeates the restaurant.


The Taste of Nostalgia

Vincent J. Mancari was born in 1931 to Elizabeth Nardo and Frank “Blackie” Mancari, who moved from Italy to the United States in 1913. The couple had a large brood. Elizabeth’s 1987 obituary notes that she was the mother of 17 children, but only six daughters and four sons, including Vincent, were listed as survivors.

Frank owned confectionery stores at Second and Orange streets and, later, Fourth and Madison streets. Vincent and Louise Bosetti both attended Wilmington High School and in 1951, they wed at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. The couple had three sons: Vincent Jr., Daniel and Thomas. They also gave birth to a healthy business that, like any child, went through growth spurts.

The couple started with Lincoln Luncheonette, a sub shop on West Fourth Street. By 1974, they’d turned the space into Vincente’s. An expansion into two neighboring townhouses increased the dining rooms from one to four, son Dan says.

The early menu was heavy on Italian American dishes. For instance, an ad promoted nine types of pizza, cheese ravioli with meatballs, veal parmesan and veal scallopini, which fearsome restaurant critic Otto Dekom called “the genuine article, made with thin slices of meat, sauteed gently,” he wrote in 1974. “Most Italian restaurants here don’t know a scaloppino from a piece of stew meat.” The Caesar salad, then $3, tasted “pretty good, with plenty of garlic.”

That year, Vincente’s participated in a two-for-one promotion along with other blasts from the past: Arsenal-on-the-Green in New Castle, Swiss Inn in Elkton, Iron Hill Inn in Newark and Piane Grill in Wilmington.


Dinner and a Show

The gregarious Vincent quickly developed a reputation for showmanship. “The Green Room sells atmosphere; Vincente’s sells the performance of maestro Vincent Mancari,” wrote News Journal critic Al Mascitti in 1997. To start, Mancari prepared Caesar salad at the table.

Well, sort of.

Vincent started mixing the famous salad next to his customers but by the time he was ready for the cheese, he’d backed up across the room to toss it into the bowl. It wasn’t unusual for him to lob Locatelli from 15 feet away.

“At that distance, even the direct hits into his well-worn wooden bowl exploded into a shower of cheese shrapnel,” Mascitti noted.

“It’s all in the wrist,” Mancari once said.

In 1994, The News Journal published the restaurateur’s recipe, which included red wine vinegar instead of lemon juice. (Mancari learned how to make the salad from the former head waiter of the Wilmington Country Club.)

Those who wanted another act followed with Bananas Foster and Café Diavolo (coffee of the devil), also prepared tableside. “With a cry of ‘Watch for the devil’s tail!’ ” he raises the ladle and pours a three-foot stream of fire back into the bowl,” Mascitti detailed in his review.

But you didn’t need to order those three items to witness a performance. Mancari was also famous for his “walking menu,” a routine that started with determining guests’ preferences and evolved into suggesting a dish and listing its ingredients.

While Mancari kept guests entertained, Elizabeth handled the back of the house. In the days before high-tech point-of-sale systems, she handwrote orders for the chefs. “They were there early, like 10:30 a.m., would come home between lunch and dinner, and then go back until 1 or 2 a.m.,” says their son, Tom. “It was never a job to my father. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. He had incredible passion.”

Tom has bartended in every location, while Dan started as a dishwasher at 16 and worked his way up the line. Vincent Jr. worked as maître d’ and head waiter.

The Old World service, Italian food and Vincent’s personality attracted celebs, including Robin Williams, who was filming Dead Poets Society in Delaware. In a 1994 interview, Mancari said that Williams was so jazzed by the tableside salad that the comedian “got up and started throwing cheese all over the place.” Bruce Willis invited the Mancari family to his Sun Valley, Idaho, home. (They went!)


On the Road

When Mascitti’s review appeared—one of many over the years—Vincente’s had moved to Independence Mall on Concord Pike, partly due to concerns about crime in the city, says Dan, now the restaurant’s executive chef. Vincente’s stayed in that location until 2005 when Mancari had a dispute with the landlord and moved to Glen Mills.

“We did well in Pennsylvania —we were very busy—but it was a cruise from Hockessin, where Dad lived,” his son says. When a businessman wanted to open a steakhouse in Vincente’s space, he made Mancari an offer Mancari “couldn’t refuse,” Dan recalls.

Mancari hinted that he would retire, but his sons knew better. A month after closing Glen Mills, Mancari called Dan to pick him up. “I wanna go for a ride and look around,” he told his son, who knew his father wanted to reopen. They pulled up to Liberty Plaza on Kirkwood Highway, which was under construction after a fire. Mancari put his window down.

“What’s going in there?” he asked the site manager.

“What you want to put in there?” the manager replied.

“An Italian restaurant—I’ll take those three spaces,” Mancari said, and he made the deal the next day.


No Place Like Home

In June 2009, Vincente’s Restaurant reopened, and his followers rejoiced. Unfortunately, Mancari died in 2013 at age 82. Today, Dan and Tom own the restaurant, but Vincent Jr. helps when needed, which might mean making the Caesar salads.

Eleven years later, the menu still bears Vincent Sr.’s imprint. “We still work the same way Dad would,” Dan says.

Customers are appreciative.

“I was just there this past Saturday night,” says longtime guest Rick Whittick. “Danny is the best. My go-to every visit is the lobster bisque, which is the best I’ve ever had anywhere, and the tableside Caesar, which is also the best.”

When Renata Kowalczk wants to treat herself, she starts with the Caesar and ends with the Bananas Foster and the Café Diavolo. “Those culinary shows are a must,” she maintains.

And while Italian food is a specialty, Vincente’s has long been known for non-Italian dishes, such as the crab cakes and steak, which have received Reader’s Choice awards. Can’t make up your mind? Dan is now the walking menu.

“I will go over, ask the guest their likes and dislikes, and either create a new dish or modify one on our menu,” he explains.

After making the salad, igniting the coffee or serving up Bananas Foster, Mancari would proudly proclaim: “It could be my greatest!” But his restaurant’s legacy remains his crowning achievement.

Above: Tableside Caesar salad was performance art for Vincente’s founder Vincent Mancari. Dan (pictured here), along with brothers Tom and Vincent Jr., keep those signature moments alive at the restaurant’s Kirkwood Highway location.