Dan Huber of Wilmington, a self-dubbed “weekend townie” who’s had a second residence in Lewes since childhood, vividly recalls being at Nicola Pizza in Rehoboth Beach when it opened half a century ago.
He was 12 and said his family was the third or fourth group to be seated at Nicola’s First Street location on June 11, 1971.
“We felt like we were friends after the first time we left,” he said. “They were so friendly and the pizza was so good.”
He also was there last fall when Nicola opened its new 17,000-square-foot Lewes location on the Coastal Highway last October.
“The quality of the pizza hasn’t changed since day one,” Huber continued. “It’s the best pizza on the planet.”
Nicola’s huge, free parking lot – a welcome amenity for customers who formerly had to hunt around Rehoboth for street parking – is almost always packed.
Owner Nicolas Caggiano gambled that his current customers would follow him and new customers would find him when he sold his downtown Rehoboth property for $4 million and moved to the larger Coastal Highway site to expand.
“It worked out great,” said the Caggianos’ niece Kelly Munyan, who has been Nicola Pizza’s general manager since 2010 when their second restaurant opened on Rehoboth Avenue to meet the constantly growing demand. “It’s been busy.”
Revenues are running ahead of forecasts, and she credits that partly to the parking and the 260 indoor and 90 outdoor seats, but also to Nicola’s place in beach community culture.
“If Nicola was their tradition, it has stayed their tradition,” Munyan said.
Huber feels like it’s more than that.
The owners and staff have always been warm and friendly, he said. And the quality of the food is consistent.
He should know.
Nicola Pizza history
Huber says he and his family ate there at least once a week after Nicolas and his wife, Joan, opened the original First Street location in 1971. They had been selling pizzas out of their house to help pay their daughter’s medical expenses.
Like many other beach businesses, the restaurant was meant to be a seasonal operation.
“They were supposed to close that first winter,” Huber said.
The Caggianos planned to return to their jobs as teachers, only running the restaurant in the summer to earn extra money.
“By the end of that summer, you couldn’t eat there after 5 p.m. without waiting, and everyone was content to stand in line and wait,” Huber remembers.
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Betting that business would continue into the fall and winter, the Caggianos decided to quit their jobs and keep Nicola Pizza open.
“You felt like you were in someone’s home having pizza,” Huber said. “They were so friendly and the pizza was so good.”
He and Liz McElheny of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who tried her first slice of Nicola Pizza Saturday evening, like the way the pizza is built.
“It’s a thin crust that’s not soggy, with a quarter inch sauce and a quarter inch cheese,” Huber said. “It’s just a great combination.”
“I like the cheese to sauce ratio,” McElheny said. “It’s a perfect cheese to sauce ratio. And I like that the crust is chewy but crispy.”
A 15-inch cheese pizza sells for $18.50.
Nicola also had a secret weapon, a well-advertised and beloved Nic-o-boli, the Caggiano versio of a stromboli.
It’s ground beef, fat-free tomato sauce and cheeses wrapped in dough and then baked. It costs $11.50 and can be bought uncooked to take home and bake fresh.
Munyan has been pleased and a little surprised that so many locals have come to the new site during the high-tourist summer season.
They rarely frequented the downtown Rehoboth locations during tourist season to avoid the crowds.
“Did you ever think on a Friday night in July so many locals would be here,” Nicolas Caggiano Jr. asked her in midsummer.
Nicola feels the love not only from locals and tourists, but also from the Delaware Restaurant Association, which just gave Nicola’s its Cornerstone Award for lifetime achievement.
One of the things that’s impressed bartender Brendt Neustadter since starting work there last spring is how many cusstomers are regulars.
“Some of them have been coming here since they were kids,” he said. “You hear old stories constantly.”
“It’s an institution,” said Aimee Lackford, of Lewes, a longtime friend of the Nicola Pizza family.
The move to Lewes, she said, is a win-win-win.
“You can’t compare the locations,” she said. “It’s better for them here – the owners, the employees, the patrons. It’s better for everyone.”
If you go
Nicola Pizza is at 17323 Ocean One Plaza off Route 1 in Lewes. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Katie Kazimir is a freelance journalist from Lewes. Contact her at [email protected] or 302-560-2211.
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