Vincenza Carrieri-Russo will never forget March 16, 2020.
On that day, Gov. John Carney modified the state of emergency order he’d implemented to curb the coronavirus. At 8 p.m., Delaware was limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery.
“We had to adapt quickly, and we had to do it correctly,” said Carrieri-Russo, whose family owns Vincenza & Margherita Bistro (V&M Bistro) in the North Wilmington suburbs.
So, the upscale Italian eatery returned to its roots.
“We turned our fine-dining establishment into an Old School pizzeria,” said Carrieri-Russo, whose grandfather opened a New York pizza parlor more than 50 years ago.
While familiar V&M dishes remain on the takeout menu, the 16-inch pizzas have been a hit.
But the family did not stop there. Recently, they added a market to the bistro so customers could purchase freshly baked bread, homemade sauce and Italian delicacies. Pasta is in the works.
What’s more, the bistro’s “V&M Barlour” menu features “boozy” ice cream to go: Whiskey Hazelnut Chocolate, Rum Pina Colada and Vodka Mint Chocolate Chip.
“You have to constantly change, adapt and pivot to survive,” said Carrieri-Russo said.
A sturdy foundation
Vincenzo Carriero-Russo, the family patriarch, is no stranger to overcoming adversity or seizing an opportunity.
His hyphenated name is the product of his given surname and the last name of the family that raised him after his parents’ death.
For 30 years, he owned Zino Pizza in Christiana Mall. When he saw that an ice cream store in Brandywine Hundred was for sale, he purchased it. Longtime residents knew it as Lickity Split. It is now Ice Cream Delight.
Vincenza and her siblings – brothers Italo and Vincenzo and sister Margherita — grew up in the business.
In 2014, Vincenza & Margherita Bistro opened around the corner from the ice cream shop. The mission: Take Italian cuisine to the next level.
Named for the sisters, the restaurant quickly gained a following for its cocktails, including the limoncello ice martini, veal dishes, sophisticated ambiance and addictive bread, which is baked on the premises. The garlic knots are rave-worthy.
Despite the casual yet upscale approach, the restaurant swiftly made the switch to pushing pizza when the pandemic sidelined dine-in service.
It is, after all, the perfect to-go food. (The regular menu is available.)
In June, restaurant dining rooms were allowed to operate at a limited capacity. But V&M has an intimate space. Reducing the number of tables did not seem economically viable.
“We put the safety of our customers and our staff first, and the business is second,” Vincenza said. “We said: ‘Let’s focus on takeout some more.’”
Carryout income is “not setting the world on fire,” she acknowledged. “We’re doing just enough to keep the lights on and stay afloat. That’s what we need to focus on until we can get through this pandemic.”
Ice cream and sauce
To survive multiple hits, a business must be agile.
“You have to stay relevant — as much as we can,” Carrieri-Russo said.
V&M has been offering ice cream sandwiches for takeout. (Take this writer’s word for it and try them.) Now you can get ice cream with a kick.
You must be 21 to order these libation-laden confections, which include chocolate hazelnut with whiskey, mint chocolate chip with vodka and pina colada with — what else? — rum.
The idea for the market originated with Vincenzo Carrieri-Russo, who always wanted to sell the family sauces.
“He’s talked about it for years,” his daughter said. “With businesses shifting and some restaurants reopening, we decided it was the time to get creative and open the market.”
The products are showcased in the takeout area. “It’s new still, and we’re fine tuning everything, but the response has been very positive.”
A former Miss Delaware USA and seasoned pageant participant, Carrier-Russo has the poise and warmth to handle customer orders and greet them at the door.
When the door shuts, however, she notices the quiet dining room.
“You don’t hear the knife and fork cutting the veal parmesan or the cocktail shaker — all the hustle and bustle,” she said.
There is no din in the dining room or at the bar. But she does hear the sound of the phone ringing with takeout orders.
For now, that’s a very good thing.