Sink your teeth into the backstories of the resort area’s signature sandwiches
By Pam George | Photographs by Scott Nathan
From the April 2021 issue
Between two slices of bread, there’s often a story, and it starts in 1762 with John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. An avid gambler, he wanted something to eat without leaving his seat, so the cook gave him bread wrapped around meat. The earl became such a fan that the “sandwich” is named for him.
Over the next two-plus centuries, many cities and regions have put a spin on the sandwich. Philly has the cheesesteak, Maine has the lobster roll, and Louisville, Ky., has the hot brown. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the crab cake sandwich is king.
However, the Culinary Coast is a melting pot, and more than a few restaurants and sub shops sell sandwiches that reflect the background of the restaurateur, chef or concept. Here are some examples — and the stories behind them.
An homage to Charm City: pit beef
Although crab cakes snare the lion’s share of attention at Woody’s Dewey Beach Bar & Grill, pit beef is a close second. It’s been on the menu since 2009 when the restaurant opened.
Owner Jimmy O’Conor is from Baltimore, and in the 1970s pit beef stands popped up on the working-class stretch of U.S. 40 (Pulaski Highway). “It is our indigenous barbecue, a dish rarely found outside the state,” wrote The Baltimore Sun’s Rob Kasper. (That was in 2006, before O’Conor opened Woody’s and before Chaps became a chain; there’s now a location of the latter on Route 1 near Rehoboth.)
Pit beef is a top-round cut grilled over charcoal — not smoked. Traditionally, the meat is sliced thin, piled on a kaiser roll and served with horseradish. O’Conor spent years perfecting his recipe, which includes minced garlic, onion and garlic powders, and Montreal Steak Seasoning. “If it is seasoned correctly, you won’t need to add many fixings to it,” he says.
The meat cooks low and slow in a 240-degree oven — an 18-pound roast takes nine hours to reach a rare temperature. Paper-thin slices are stacked on a toasted brioche roll instead of kaiser and served with homemade Old Bay chips and a pickle.
Woody’s features pit beef three ways. You can order the standard version or the Dewey Dunker, a sandwich immersed in au jus — roll and all. “You need a fork and knife to eat it,” O’Conor notes. (And napkins.) Woody’s also uses pit beef in its French dip, which includes onions, Swiss cheese and a side of au jus for dipping. Pair any of the pit beef offerings with a crab cake for the ultimate surf-and-turf.
Upscale sandwich: lobster grilled cheese
In 2008, chef Doug Ruley was determined to put a sandwich on the menu at Bluecoast Seafood Grill & Raw Bar. The problem: It had to live up to the Bethany Beach restaurant’s upscale reputation and complement the seafood concept.
“One day, it just hit me: lobster grilled cheese,” says Ruley, who is vice president of culinary operations for SoDel Concepts, which owns the restaurant. “We put it on the feature sheet for the weekend, and guests loved it right away.” One customer dined at the bar for three consecutive nights. “Three nights, three lobster grilled cheeses,” Ruley says.
The kitchen uses steamed lobster claw and knuckle meat mixed with an Old Bay mayonnaise. It’s topped with a slice of aged cheddar cheese and served on sourdough bread from Crack of Dawn Bakery in Berlin, Md.
“Throughout the years, some ingredients have changed here and there — green apple, scrapple, basil and tomato, to name a few,” Ruley says. One customer asked him to deep-fry the whole sandwich and dust it with
powdered sugar (a la a Monte Cristo).
“I happily obliged.”
Some variations came with a salad or soup. Fries dusted with sea salt, coleslaw and house-made pickles are the most popular accompaniments.
On any given night, the kitchen makes between 20 and 40 of the sandwiches. Says Ruley: “Once one hits the dining room and people see the ooey-gooey sandwich, many more orders follow.”
Milton’s Big Easy: the Po’ Boy
It’s not hard to figure out the star of Michael Clampitt’s Route 16 business. The sign — Po’ Boys Creole Restaurant — says it all.
Essentially, the sandwich is New Orleans’ take on a sub, but it’s served on French bread and “dressed” with lettuce, tomato, pickle and remoulade sauce, a spicy mayonnaise. The name “po’ boy” was reportedly coined by brothers Benny and Clovis Martin, streetcar conductors-turned-restaurateurs. In 1929, the brothers offered free sandwiches to striking conductors. When the union members stepped into the restaurant, the staff yelled: “Here comes another poor boy!”
Lee and Amy Stewart opened Po’ Boys in 2009 in a sleepy strip mall with a dollar store. Lee had lost a job during the Great Recession, and the couple needed to make ends meet. By 2013, they were ready to sell, and Clampitt was ready to buy. “I was looking for a boutique restaurant with a great clientele,” recalls the graduate of Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program. He previously was the chef at Baywood Greens, where he was more accustomed to serving golfers American standards than Gulf-inspired cuisine. Nevertheless, he took the plunge.
While Clampitt has tweaked things here and there, the menu still features gumbo, jambalaya, muffuletta (a hoagie on a round roll) and, of course, po’ boys. In 2020, the restaurant sold more than 13,800 po’ boys, which you can order with fried crawfish, shrimp or oysters. Want catfish? Choose blackened or fried. In a nod to the locale, there’s a crab cake po’ boy. Can’t decide? The Zydeco packs a crab cake, shrimp and oysters in a crunchy nest of lettuce and tomatoes.
The chef’s creative takes have included short rib po’ boys with charred onion spread, alligator, buffalo crawfish with blue cheese, kielbasa with green tomato relish, fried green tomato, and oysters with tasso ham and brie.
A po’ boy comes with crisp fries, dusted with zesty Cajun seasoning. But those in the know recommend adding a cup of chicken-and-andouille gumbo.
That’s Italian: Big Bob’s meatball parmesan
In 1989, Lisa DiFebo-Osias opened DiFebo’s because she didn’t want to leave the beach, where her family had a second home. Plus, the Wilmington native had spotted an untapped niche — Bethany’s dining scene had many restaurants, but there wasn’t a decent cheesesteak to be found.
DiFebo’s started as a deli-cafe featuring subs, steaks, specialty sandwiches and homemade meatballs with red sauce. The latter is made with her grandmother Angelina DiFebo’s recipes. DiFebo-Osias knows them well. She grew up eating at her grandparents’ home on most nights with the rest of her family. Her father, Bob, is one of six children.
But when it comes to making meatballs at DiFebo’s, Bob is in control. “Nothing changes,” his daughter says. “If I try to change the type of beef or want to use extra-virgin olive oil, he flips out.”
On most mornings, after Mass, the older DiFebo opens the restaurant to cook between 750 and 2,100 meatballs, depending on the season, and up to 80 gallons of sauce.
Meatball sandwiches come three ways. The familiar meat and sauce version has provolone. “It’s very rustic,” DiFebo-Osias says. Customers can also order “naked” meatballs on pressed panini bread. Then there is the meatball Caesar.
“Italians eat our salad after our pasta,” DiFebo-Osias explains. “It goes on the plate where you have spaghetti and meat grease. It gets all mixed together. It’s unbelievably delicious.” Along with Caesar salad, the meatball/salad sandwich has a touch of sauce.
All of the versions are made with “soulful love,” she says. And that is the secret to their success.
Thanksgiving on a roll: The Bobbie
Ask Delawareans to name the state’s celebrity sandwich, and they will undoubtedly mention The Bobbie, the best-selling item at Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop. The sub is made with fresh turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayo, and it’s available all year long.
The chain dates back to 1976 when siblings Lois and Alan Margolet opened a sub shop in Wilmington’s Little Italy. Capriotti’s, named for their mother’s family, distinguished itself from the competition by roasting and shredding turkey on site. The owners’ Aunt Bobbie was the inspiration for the unique Thanksgiving sub. She was famous for tucking holiday leftovers between bread.
At the Lewes-area Capriotti’s, owner George Buchwald sells up to 250 Bobbies a week, a number that can triple during summer. He goes through 40 pounds of turkey every day in the winter and 80 pounds in summer. About a quarter of the meat goes into the Bobbies. In the middle of July, he might need 25 pounds of cranberry sauce a day.
Those unfamiliar with the sub can view photos of the ingredients on the shop’s wall. “That really sells them on it from the get-go,” Buchwald says. “Then, after they order the sandwich and taste it, they are hooked.”
The connection to comfort food is part of the appeal, he says. “This special sandwich creates lifelong fans simply by combining the flavors of home and reminding people of the familiar flavors of their past.”