Feast in the First State: What to Eat in Delaware

Ocean access, fertile farmland and abundant orchards mean there's plenty to devour in Delaware.

Photo By: Keith Mosher

Photo By: hillwoman2

Photo By: VisitDelaware.com

Photo By: Lauren Todd, Grotto Pizza

Photo By: Delaware Tourism Board

Photo By: VisitDelaware.com

Sea and Savories

For millions, the state of Delaware stands in their memories as a momentary blur along I-95, or perhaps some mysterious land populated by credit card banks and Amtrak-loving vice presidents. Yet past the interstate exits, slender Delaware quietly treasures an oversized food culture, especially those treasures that have evolved organically from its proximity to oceans and bays, its rich farm land and its remarkable overabundance of poultry. High-end dining also thrives in the edgier kitchens of Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, but the born-and-bred citizenry unapologetically cherish simpler joys, and more humble homemade satisfactions. Combined with Delaware’s lack of sales tax, the First State’s home-grown delicacies give travelers a remarkable opportunity to eat affordably and well.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

The Bobbie

Once appreciated only within Delaware’s relatively meager 2,941 square miles, Capriotti's beloved, Thanksgiving-inspired submarine sandwich has been spreading its turkey-stuffing-and-cranberry sauce love throughout the country in recent years. Now, desperate expatriate Delawareans (along with much of the nation) can enjoy this Wilmington-born treat in 16 states, from coast to stuffing-stuffed coast. Tip: Pick up an oniony cheesesteak or an oil-drenched Italian sub while you’re there.

Chicken and Slippery Dumplings

There’s an air of Southern-style rural charm throughout the lower half of the state, where Sunday dinner often means stewed chicken and "slippery" dumplings, which are flat, square and chewy pasta-esque marvels that bear no resemblance to the “drop” dumplings of other regions. True Delawareans typically partake at grandma’s or auntie’s house, but folks with a shortage of local relatives can get their fill at Jimmy’s Grille in Bridgeville (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays only) or Arner’s in New Castle (Wednesdays only).

Blue Claw Crabs

Love for these peevish crustaceans is nurtured from childhood to infirmity in Delaware, where the sweet meat is preferably picked from the Old Bay Seasoning-crusted shell by hand during beer-lubricated backyard feasts. The crabs are also considered proper adornment for an array of dishes, including crab cakes, pasta and soup. True down-and-dirty crab-crackin’ should be indulged at a careworn crabhouse such as Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic; more refined explorers might opt for the silky-creamy crab bisque (with crab cake on the side) at Newark’s Nutter’s.

Fries with Vinegar

When in Delaware, the beach is everyone's summer hideaway from everyone else, and when at the beach, a stop for a tub of hot fries at Thrasher’s on the boardwalk is as obligatory as a nap on the sand. A liberal dousing with cider vinegar is not quite as mandatory, but comes highly recommended by devotees of the snappy, salty, memory-making result. Just keep watch for dive-bombing seagulls.

Grotto Pizza

Slightly sweet, nicely thin and swirled with a secret blend of cheeses (cheddar is suspected), this Delaware classic seems to always taste better at the beach — with locations at Bethany, Dewey and Rehoboth — but thankfully has offshoot branches (and slavish devotees) across the state.

Summer Peaches

From deep in their consciousness, lifelong Delawareans can summon the sensations of summer with just one bite of a ripe and juicy peach — so sweet, and somehow stuffed with sunshine. A Delaware treat for more than 500 years, peaches pop up at the roadside produce stands that add sweet pause to the back-country roads around the ocean resorts of Sussex County, and are available in abundance (or pick-your-own) starting in mid-summer at such orchards as Bennett’s (which has a Peach Festival on the first Saturday in August); Fifer (32 varieties), and T.S. Smith & Sons (15 varieties).

Fried Chicken

In a state where poultry outnumber humans by a factor of about 250-to-1 in any given year, Delaware shows a certain kind of reverential treatment to its fowl overlords. Walt’s Flavor Crisp’s soulful and deeply flavorful rendition of fried chicken is a connoisseur’s choice for those near Wilmington. Minor fried-chicken miracles also occur around the clock at Royal Farms convenience stores statewide, and insiders rave about the fried magic at Johnnie’s Dog House & Chicken Shack (pictured), Spence’s Bazaar, Lettie’s Kitchen and Kick n’ Chicken.

Scrapple

Often derided with a grimace as a mystery mix of cast-off pig parts, this cornmeal-fortified breakfast loaf has a crisp beauty when sliced thin, fried dark-dark brown and slathered with either syrup, ketchup or grape jelly. Properly prepared, scrapple’s savory, soft crunch pairs perfectly with eggs, and has even been known to venture boldly into sandwiches and even onto pizza. Luckily, this typically home-cooked dish also finds loving treatment at one of the state’s funkiest, most unapologetically unsophisticated diners, in Smyrna at Helen’s Famous Sausage House (where diners should ask to eat in the Elvis Room). It is also available via mail at Rapa Scrapple.

Italian Water Ice

In roadside huts and city shops throughout Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood, a cooling summer moments are courtesy of fruity, slushy, all-natural cups of slurpy Italian water ice. At Fusco’s, you can get any flavor you’d like, so long as it’s lemon, and at nearby Yatz’s, the lemony nirvana is fortified by the promise of another Delaware favorite: oniony, beefy, best-in-town cheesesteaks.

Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA

Not technically a food, but surely one of any brew-fan’s main food groups, this deeply assertive and hoppy India Pale Ale craft beer has won droves of fans (and numerous awards), and is best enjoyed beneath the steampunk treehouse at Dogfish’s funky-fun brewery in Milton, or at its Rehoboth Beach brewpub, where owner Sama Calagione frequently tests Dogfish’s “off-center” beer flavors (including, naturally, scrapple).

Ice Cream

Next to vinegary french fries, drippy homemade ice cream is an oceanside favorite, and at The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth is traditionally flavored in decidedly non-traditional ways, from “Booger” (green-tinted vanilla ice cream with green caramel swirl and marshmallow bits) to “Better than Sex” (devil’s food cake mix, vanilla extract, Heath Bar crumbles and fudge) to “Bacon De Leche” (dulce de leche ice cream with candied pecans, a caramel swirl, and of course, bacon). Farther from the sea, the cow-to-cone creations of UDairy Creamery and Woodside Farm Creamery have also encouraged many a deliciously chill moment.

Tatanka Hot Sauce

Worshipful fans of this fiery Delaware-made condiment slather it on ribs, wings and anything requiring a touch of sass. The third-place winner at the 2015 Louisiana Hot Sauce World Championship, Tatanka also conveniently serves as an able marinade, a nicely impudent scrambled-egg awakener and as a convenient spur to ho-hum tacos. Grab a bottle online, at ShopRite supermarkets in Delaware, or at hot sauce shops in 25 states.

Delaware-style Hot Dogs

While there’s nothing revelatory about the notion of split and griddle-fried dogs, there’s a certain irrational lust inspired by the way they’re done in Delaware. In Deerhead’s rendition (a Bear, Delaware, classic since 1935), such de rigueur toppings as mustard and onions are supplemented to the point of delightful overkill with a secret yet distinctly tomato-y sauce. At The Dog House, foot-long loving is best accompanied by chili and cheese at the shoulder-to-shoulder lunch counter. For enthusiasts of excess, consider the Delaware Destroyer at Johnnie’s Dog House & Chicken Shack: two dogs, topped with mac and cheese, chili, grilled onions and hot sauce.

Southern Delaware Roadside Chicken BBQs

Travelers to the Delaware beaches from practically any point of the compass are liable to catch the wind-borne scent of smoky salvation (and salivation) as they near one of Delaware’s fund-raising chicken barbecue stands. A summer-long fixture, these temporary stands have been run for decades by such service groups as the Bridgeville Kiwanis Club, the American Legion in Dagsboro and the Ocean View VFW.

The Nic-o-Boli

Not quite a stromboli, yet clearly a distant relative of the calzone, this only-in-Delaware ground beef-and-pizza dough pocket has given unfussy satisfaction to thousands of Rehoboth beachgoers, inspiring generations of memories at Nicola Pizza. Paradoxically, such simplicity seems to inspire celebrity adoration: Former President George H.W. Bush and wife, Barbara, had Nic-o-bolis shipped to the White House; Jim Cramer of CNBC's Mad Money has raved about them on-air; and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters has admitted a soft spot for the sweet pepper Nic-o-boli.