CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. — In the world of Vinny Doria, seafood and pizza are mainstays.
The seasoned restaurateur just launched his second eatery, Vinny’s Seafood Express, on Carolina Beach after operating Uncle Vinny’s Pizzeria Ristorante for 11 years.
It marks the 40th restaurant Doria guesses he has opened during his 43 years working in the industry. He has owned and operated Italian eateries and pizza joints from New York to Raleigh. A decade ago, he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and move to the shore.
“I’d been vacationing down here for years,” Doria said. “And I always thought it’d be nice to relocate to Carolina Beach — then I found my soulmate. She kind of had the same passion that I did about moving to the beach and opening up a business.”
Right before Memorial Day, they launched Vinny’s Seafood Express. The landlord of Vinny’s Pizza built out the space after buying property directly beside the pizza parlor. Vinny’s Pizzeria and Vinny’s Seafood Express share a parking lot.
Doria said since tourists are drawn to seafood when visiting — and locals always love it, no matter the time of year — he wanted to capitalize on the fresh bounty offered down South. He orders his seafood out of Little Washington, North Carolina — clams, oysters, shrimp, scallops. They come fried or grilled, served as platters or on sandwiches, even on salads for lighter palates.
“But we wanted to stick to a Southern-style flair because, as they say, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,'” Doria said.
A shrimp burger comes with jumbo fried shrimp, topped with coleslaw, tartar sauce and ketchup; a crab cake sandwich has lettuce tomato and tartar sauce. A New England lobster roll also finds its way tucked in between the Calabash-style offerings.
A burger is on the menu for non-seafood eaters. Doria said the beef is certified Angus, ground within 24 hours of being served. There are also chicken tenders for the kids. Crinkle-cut fries, beer-battered onion rings, corn on the cob, and obligatory hushpuppies are offered. Doria will be adding daily specials soon as well.
He even upped the ante on a traditional Southern drink: The sweet tea at Vinny’s Seafood Express gets a cherry twist. “It’s basically tea that we add cherry syrup to,” he said. “Customers absolutely love it.”
The operation runs as counter-service with the intent to be quick-serve. Everything is packaged to-go in cardboard boxes, though a small dining area can seat a little more than 20 customers should they wish to take their items to a table on site. Two booths align the wall inside the brightly, nautical-themed dining area. The outside deck is more spacious, with two more booths, plus bar stools lining a bar, which faces the condos and ocean across the way.
Doria said he will run the express year-round: “We don’t want to be a seasonal thing. We always feel like we got to be there for the community, especially those who work for us. This year has tested employees. Because everyone in the restaurant service industry — you know, there is a lack of employees right now.”
He staffs 25 at both restaurants, though it only takes seven to run the express. “My staff is more like family to us,” Doria said. “They’re not just a number.”
At the pizzeria, he is operating again at full capacity, after the dining room was closed for 10 months last year. Yet, takeout and especially delivery went through the roof. “I always say pizza is recession proof,” he explained, “because it can a feed a family of four under $20.”
Pizza and Italian food in general is where Doria’s love for food began. The Brooklyn-born business owner came from a big family, one of seven kids, and often helped out in the kitchen. He remembers going to the store, fish markets and fruit stands with his mom every Saturday for weekly groceries.
“And on Sunday, as a kid, my job was to get up early and roll the meatballs for family dinners,” Doria stated.
His first job was at a pizza place, scooping Italian ices. “From there, I went to working counters and up the ladder throughout my whole life. I never worked underneath a chef. So everything I’ve done, it’s all been self-taught.”
Doria goes between both the pizza and seafood locations daily to fill in where needed. He will install new equipment one day, and then find himself wearing the hat of a handyman the next.
“I was washing dishes last night,” he explained, “and then fixing a leaky faucet the other day. I was running speaker wires for the new restaurant, to add ambience in the dining room — whatever has to be done. I’ve had so many restaurants that there’s nothing in there I can’t do myself. And I’m the kind of guy that, you know, I lead by example. I’m not a finger-pointer; I’m definitely hands-on at both occasions.”
The industry is his passion — even through its ups and downs, he said. Doria still wakes up with fresh eyes and the wherewithal to continue, day in, day out, through recessions, storms and even a pandemic.
“I don’t look at it as work,” he said. “I look at it as something that I look forward to doing everyday.”
Prices range from $11 to $19 at Vinny’s Seafood Express, located at 1010 S. Lake Park Blvd. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., seven days a week.
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