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Monday, March 8, 2021

Dan Butler is Still Cooking – Wilmington’s Original Power Chef Continues to Innovate at Piccolina Toscana

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Susan Poppiti
Susan Poppiti
Susan Poppiti is a mathematics teacher at Wilmington Friends Upper School. As a member of the Delaware Bar, she authors a monthly food column, “The Judicial Palate,” for The Journal of the Delaware State Bar Association. Combining her love of education and food, Susan also provides cooking instruction to adults and teens.

Dan Butler is still on the cutting edge of the Wilmington restaurant scene after 40 years

Many of my family’s most cherished milestones and memories are intertwined with Toscana.

Chef Dan Butler carved the whole roasted pig at my wedding reception. My grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday over Toscana’s tortellini — a dish Butler says he will never remove from the menu. I could go on, but this piece is about Chef Butler (aka Big Chef Guy) and Toscana, not my family. Yet, Butler and Toscana are family — to generations of Delawareans.

Nearly 30 years ago, Butler was on the cutting edge as he sensed our appetite for refined Italian fare. The 80s acquainted us with Wolfgang Puck’s “haute cuisine” pizzas. The 90s would bring extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella di bufala into our home kitchens. In 1991, after honing his culinary skills along the East Coast, Butler introduced these fresh ingredients to his hometown’s Trolley Square neighborhood.

Now entering its fourth decade, Butler’s Piccolina Toscana continues to serve up excellence — both innovating what is on the plate as well as delivering a memorable, contemporary dining experience.

 

Butler’s culinary journey began while he was a St. Mark’s High School student working as a dishwasher at the Hotel DuPont. After a promotion to “silverware guy,” Butler was elevated to a pantry cook position. “This was a huge step,” says Big Chef Guy, “especially for a high school student.” By graduation, Butler enrolled at the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.

After finishing his studies at the CIA, he moved to Washington DC to decorate wedding cakes at the Watergate Pastry Shop by day and work in the kitchen of an upscale Italian restaurant by night. For the next ten years, from high-end Italian establishments in Miami and Tampa to a hotel group in Alabama, Butler sharpened his creative skills and business acumen.

A new pasta featuring lobster, the Aragosta and Spaghettini at Piccolina Toscana

Butler says he thrives on personal interactions.

“When big decisions, like recipes and music selections, are made off premises by people who have no interaction with guests, a soulless experience results,” he says. 

For Butler, emotion is key. This intuition has made Toscana a Wilmington hallmark, comforting us with pizza, pasta, and Prosecco.

 

What distinguishes Toscana are the experiences conceived by Butler and his staff. “You can go to a restaurant and have an excellent dish, and that may bring you back. But that newness and excitement wear off after a few visits. My mission is to create new and enjoyable experiences while offering consistent quality,” reflects Butler.

Butler imagines new experiences through his wine dinners. Generally, the themed dinners — based on seasonal or special ingredients — are offered on the first Wednesday of each month. The dinners featuring winemakers are typically scheduled for the first Sunday of the month. My husband and I have participated in several of these special events and found the dishes delicious and the wine pairings superb. During one especially memorable wine dinner, we had the opportunity to learn directly from the Tuscan winemaker herself. For information on upcoming dinners, check Toscana’s website at https://www.piccolinatoscana.com/.

A lovely mosaic of the classic beef carpaccio

Butler’s quest to evolve and invent new experiences for his guests is evidenced by Toscana’s iterations over the years — first Griglia Toscana, then Tavola Toscana, then Toscana Kitchen and Bar, and now Piccolina Toscana. While Butler has no plans to change the name again, he intends to update the restaurant and bar area as well as the to-go side. Inside the dining area Butler plans to add soft seating beside the new floating wall and a centerpiece table with large floral arrangements as the focal point.

Other innovations are in the works. Perhaps you received the recent email notification that Toscana now offers online ordering. Toscana has a brisk business delivering meals to businesses. But Butler is exploring a home delivery option this year, too. What would be better than a Capellini al Pomodoro at your door?

 

Speaking of capellini, several new pastas have been added to the menu. On a recent visit, I enjoyed the Aragosta and Spaghettini — lobster meat, roasted garlic, red chili flakes, and San Marzano tomatoes tossed with imported spaghettini. The new risotto dish of mascarpone, seared Kennett mushrooms, and truffle oil is a must, on its own or paired with the grilled pork chop. Of course, classics like the Beef Carpaccio and Caesar Salad (with anchovy filets upon request!) make for light and tasty first courses.

As a chef/owner, Butler has a demanding schedule. “While a chef can focus on creating the ideal dish, an owner must be aware of all factors. Everything crosses my desk,” Butler says.

The Aperol Spritz, a favorite cocktail at Toscana

Yet, over the years, Butler has found ways to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Frequently, Butler, his wife, Kasia, and two sons dine together at the restaurant. Toscana is truly family.

In addition to serving lunch and dinner, Piccolina Toscana is open for Sunday brunch. The bar/lounge offers a variety of happy hour specials, and Toscana To-Go provides a myriad of options ready for pick-up. Keep in mind Toscana Catering for special events and Butler’s Brandywine Prime for steak and seafood in Chadds Ford.

 

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