WILMINGTON – Do your childhood memories include playing under the dining room table while grandma whipped up something tasty in the kitchen so that the family could feast on the many courses throughout a Sunday afternoon? Then the Italian-style dinner at Cousins Deli in downtown Wilmington is a must.
Since he began opening his doors after regular business hours to serve a traditional family style meal, Chef Joe DeLiberto has eagerly awaited each Friday and Saturday night to provide his customers with an experience ingrained in his soul at a young age.
“I still remember the first night the dinner was full of people four years ago this month and I came out to greet people and the place erupted in applause,” said DeLiberto, who originally hails from Paterson, New Jersey. “I knew I could run a business, was decent at cooking, but until we started the dinners, and seeing a full reservation list week-in and week-out, it’s been amazing. We really love putting it together each week.
“It seems simple and basic, but the style we bring and niche, not everyone can do this,” he added.
Located across from the old New Hanover County Courthouse on Third Street, Cousins offers a large selection of specialty sandwiches, with upwards of 30 on the menu, in addition to a variety of daily specials, salads and baked goods between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday-Friday. DeLiberto said he started tossing the idea of launching a weekend dinner option after realizing his original delicatessen concept needed to be revamped.
“Things got off to a slow start and I think a lot had to do with construction on Third Street, if everyone remembers that,” DeLiberto said. “In Wilmington, once you gain customers they’re very loyal. So it was a slow progression. Now we see growth from month to month and things are on a steady incline and I think a lot had to do with us hosting dinner.”
About three to fourth months into opening Cousins Deli, DeLiberto realized the commuter breakfast-type business he thought would be attracted to his establishment wasn’t gaining traction.
“The culture in most of the country doesn’t exist anymore because of drive-throughs and convenience,” DeLiberto added. “When I knew that wasn’t going to work, we thought we’d offer something different and it changed our business.
“This has been something I’ve been doing for a long time, but it took me just a few years ago to realize I have a talent, and the style of cooking we present is one of a kind in Wilmington,” he said.
As Frank Sinatra plays among a backdrop made of pictures from DeLiberto’s family and his old deli in northern New Jersey, where various Italian meats and peppers would be drying out, the popular lunchtime-spot-turned-dining-room brings patrons together as if they were indeed, famiglia.
Offering seatings at 6 and 8:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, Cousins Deli has brought its homestyle tradition to the masses for Wilmington to enjoy. The only thing you need to worry about after getting on the reservation list, since all family-style dinners are made to order, is to bring your appetite.
The meal begins with homemade bruschetta, followed by a hot antipasto. A fresh salad topped with DeLiberto’s homemade dressing is next. And then it’s time to mangia on the pasta of the evening. Remember, a true family eats out of the same dish so be ready to pass along the big bowl of penne or rigatoni and “sauce,” not gravy.
Still hungry? Then comes the main course and vegetable. Mangia tutti, or dinner is served. And, as a night cap, DeLiberto rolls out homemade Italian desserts and coffee.
All together it’s a six-course meal, a few hours with welcoming staff, and good laughs alongside family and friends. Una notte perfetta fuori — or a perfect night out. The cost, $29.99 per person. Bring your own beer (BYOB) and wine.
“The guests really enjoy it and the experience people get here is exactly what we want it to be, like you’re coming to my home or grandma’s house for dinner,” DeLiberto added. “First-timers are still blown away. I still almost get choked up about it.
“I’ve had grown men and women getting up and hugging me, that is why you get into this business,” he said.
While Cousins Deli has found success in being a true Italian delicatessen to the many patrons who pass through on a daily basis, it’s the weekend dinner option that has turned DeLiberto’s slogan of “Where Great Food Is a Family Tradition” into an experience passed through the generations and into the lives of many in and around the Port City.
“We just want give people a good feeling, and I feel like we do that with all of our customers,” DeLiberto said. “We like to bring people back to the Sunday dinner families use to have. Times have changed. The staff is like family. Even though we’re not blood, we have the family feeling. The atmosphere we’ve created is like a big family.”