Saturday, April 1, 2023

Embraced by Riverlights community, restaurateur celebrates Girls With Dough opening after challenging year

Caprese salad features Roma tomatoes, stacked with basil and mozzarella, garnished with garlic, cherry tomatoes, and a balsamic drizzle. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Girls With Dough Pizzeria and Pub)

WILMINGTON –– Only a year after Tammy Tilghman launched Magnolia Social Café in Riverlights in 2017, she began floating ideas about a second eatery in the riverfront community. Though it was her first time out of the gate as a restaurant owner — Tilghman has run a bail bonding company for 18 years — she found something connective in its operations, from customers she had grown to love and a staff who made the whole wheel turn seamlessly.

“I started thinking about what would be the next great addition out there to offer,” she said. “Italian is what Kevin specializes in, so I allowed him to take the menu and go with it.”

Kevin Vermilyea is Tilghman’s chef at Magnolia Social Café and has led the charge at Girls With Dough Pizzeria & Pub. The restaurant will make its debut to the public Friday evening on Arcadian Row in Riverlights, across the way from Magnolia Social Café.   

“I grew up in a Sicilian household,” Vermilyea said, “even though my name is not Italian — French and Dutch on my dad’s side. I spent a lot of time at a young age in the kitchen with my grandmother.”

Vermilyea went to the Culinary Institute of America at 19, and then traveled to gain experience by working in various kitchens under different chefs. He worked under Wolfgang Puck in California and Larry Forgione in Rhinebeck, New York. 

“[Larry] was one of the first celebrity chefs and really just the father of American cuisines,” Vermilyea said. “So, at a young age, I got to learn from some of the best chefs in the country.”

A decade ago, Vermilyea stopped over in Wilmington to camp for the night and decided to stay. He worked at Landfall Country Club and under Tripp Ingle at Brasserie du Soleil before taking the job at Magnolia Social Café.

“And he is very good at what he does,” Tilghman praised. “The thing about being successful is, you put people in the place of doing what they love to do and let them grow. Cooking is art to Kevin, so I want him to make masterpieces.” 

Neapolitan pie topped with prosciutto, fig jam and gorgonzola. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Girls With Dough)

Vermilyea put the focus on classic Italian recipes, made with fresh ingredients. Caprese salad, arancini (fried risotto rice balls), charcuterie, antipasto, pastas, and of course pizza can be found on the menu. Vermilyea chose Neapolitan-style — known for crust that has a crispy exterior and pillowy interior — each pie made in a Pizza Master oven. 

“We have a bunch of unique flavors,” Vermilyea said. “We’re just making sure that, every step of the way, we do it perfect.”

Vermilyea uses Bacio cheese — “which to me is like the best cheese you could get” — part Buffalo milk, part cow’s milk. He prefers ripe plum and Roma tomatoes and picks the herbs he grows himself. During the soft opening on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Vermilyea said customers took to a pie topped with homemade fig spread, prosciutto and gorgonzola. A wild mushroom version also went off without a hitch.

“I use a whole variety of wild roasted mushrooms and then finish it with a spinach salad tossed with olive oil and lemon juice,” he explained. “We’re also making a true Margherita, which is sliced Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, olive oil — that’s it. A lot of places do tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, but I want to try to stay true to how authentic these dishes first were created.”

A few pasta dishes are on the menu as well. For now Vermilyea has chosen to use only rigatoni and spaghetti, offered with bolognese, Alfredo, or topped with meatballs; he also makes lasagne. He said the trick to his sauce is simplicity: “It’s cooked just long enough to keep the fresh tomato flavor,” which comes from crushed plum tomatoes, as well as added onions and garlic.

“I also put some of my own Cuban oregano in it and fresh basil and that’s about it,” he said.

Vermilyea is hoping to make fresh pasta eventually, but wants to get the restaurant up and running first. He hopes to add a few more members to his back-of-the-house staff, too, and add more equipment in order to handle larger orders of pasta.

“We want to make sure we can deliver what we’re going to promise,” Vermilyea said. 

The restaurant seats 80 to 90 people in its 3,200 square feet. Tilghman has hired 28 employees so far, but is still actively taking applications, she said. Opening Girls With Dough hasn’t been an easy or linear process. The pandemic first set it back. 

Rigatoni served with bolognese, fresh shaved Parmesan and fresh basil. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Girls With Dough)

“There were so many hiccups with the construction itself, delays on equipment,” Tilghman said. “Covid just kept hindering the situation.”

Then, at the beginning of the year, Tilghman was faced with a health crisis and had to undergo brain surgery in March to have a tumor removed.

Still recovering, she credits her team and the entire Riverlights community for its ongoing support to see through the opening of Girls With Dough. 

“I thought for sure it would be completed by the time I got back because I was gone for quite a while, but there were still so many little missing pieces that we had to have in place to get open,” she said. 

Even two weeks ago, Tilghman revealed she didn’t know the grand opening would be Oct. 8. Then, the health inspection came through, as did the ABC license. “Everything finally just fell in place,” she said.

Tilghman wanted to have a band play the grand opening, but started running into issues with many already booked out for fall. Smoke on the Water management stepped in and began reaching out to bands that normally play their patio. 

“I mean, it’s such a cool team effort all the way across the board at Riverlights,” Tilghman said. 

Earlier in the year, the community residents came together to launch a GoFundMe to help Tilghman with her hospital bills. They also hosted a parade in her honor to see her off ahead of surgery. Tilghman said it reminded her why she got into the restaurant industry to begin with.

“My dad always supported me and he loved coffee,” she said. Magnolia Social Café originally was going to be a coffee shop to honor her dad who passed away. “I always wanted to keep his legacy alive and create an environment where people could share memories and be together,” she said. “Magnolia Social Café came from that.” 

Though it grew into a full-service café, Tilghman said, having residents in Riverlights rally around her, as well as a dedicated staff of employees that feel more like family, has made it supersede her vision and fulfilled her personally beyond what she anticipated.

“A lot of people around me have huge hearts,” Tilghman said. “A lot of people stepped up and took on challenges during opening Girls With Dough and kept things rolling while I was away — and they didn’t miss a beat. There’s a lot of great people out there working together. It has been quite a journey.”

Girls With Dough Pizzeria and Pub will be open Tuesday through Friday for dinner and on weekends for lunch and dinner.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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