- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- THREE OF A KIND : Bernadette "Bernie" Donakowski Delmore (center) founded Del's Famous Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant 35 year ago. Now, she runs it with help from her sons Ryan (left) and Darren (right).
# Do you know which of our local Italian restaurants dates back to the early '70s, making it the oldest continuously-operating eatery of its kind in SLO County? If you guessed the same place I did, you thought it was Cafe Roma, but that eatery was established in 1980 by Maria Rizzo and her family. Giuseppe's and Rosa's in Pismo Beach both opened in 1988. Buona Tavola and Benvenuti Ristorante (now Calago) in SLO opened in the early '90s. So who earns the claim to fame? None other than that quaint trattoria in Shell Beach, Del's Famous Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant, established in 1973.
I learned this from Del's owner, Bernadette "Bernie" Donakowski Delmore, who founded the restaurant 35 years ago and has managed it ever since. When Bernie and her then-husband Jim Delmore opened it, the eatery was strictly take-out. On Del's website, they explain that it started as a "take-out-only, hole-in-the-wall that served everyone, even those without shirts and shoes." Today, however, it's mainly a sit-down, family-style restaurant that still serves food to go to accommodate their huge fan base.
Bernie is proud that her sons, Ryan, 34, and Darren, 31, have joined her in managing the family restaurant.
"Both of my sons are very talented: Ryan is the music leader at his church in the Five Cities Vineyard Christian Fellowship, he's recorded canticles on CDs," Bernie said, adding that he's given her four wonderful grandchildren. "Darren is an avid writer who's currently working on a screenplay, and he's written for wine magazines. He's worked at Eberle, Bonny Doon, and Saucelito Canyon wineries, plus Hirsch and Whitethorn in northern California. He's our wine expert."
Bernie describes her restaurant as "more in a niche for everyday dinners," because, she said, they're affordably priced. That fact hasn't changed, as witnessed by the many families who dine there with their children, from babies to teens, each night. And now, Del's is making the bill of fare even tastier. Throughout March, they've been celebrating their 35th year of satisfying locals and tourists with pizza, pasta, lasagna, and many other Italian specialties. For this last week of their 35th anniversary celebration--until March 30--they're offering a nightly special on any calzone on the menu. Choices include cheese, veggie, sausage, meatball, or pesto chicken. They're normally $11.45 to $13.45 each, but the special puts them at $6.99 per calzone.
This wine lover was especially pleased to see that Del's, which offers 15 wines by the glass, is also offering a wine special for the celebration. They have the outstanding Fiddlehead Pinot Noir (375/ml) for only $16. The wine list offers a decent selection of well-chosen wines. The Delmore family is showing their appreciation of their loyal patrons with a meaningful thank you.
When the Delmore family moved here from L.A. in the early '70s, Bernie remembered that it was a time when there were few restaurants to choose from.
"We chose from coffee shops or restaurants that featured Santa Maria-style barbecue," she noted. "There was one pizza place that was take-out only in San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Plaza. But there were no other Italian restaurants in the county that I knew of."
Bernie and her husband, with financial help from his father, Ed Delmore, saw the possibilities and quickly acted. They opened several Italian restaurants, including the original Del's where Mei's Chinese Restaurant is now. Although their small take-out pizzeria was popular, they constantly heard requests to expand to a full service restaurant.
"We heard mostly from travelers who were tired of eating in their cars," Bernie said with a laugh. "The overhead isn't as great when you don't need dining room fixtures."
Of course, they added 10 tables for their customers.
In 1992, Bernie was divorced and chose to take the Shell Beach eatery in the settlement.
"When we opened Del's, I was pregnant with my first son, Ryan, but [the eatery] was like my baby, too," she said. "It was my favorite of our restaurants."
After 21 years at the same site, Del's relocated to its current, larger restaurant near the Dinosaur Caves in 1994. They tripled their business when they expanded from 10 to 33 tables, and still did a great take-out business. Bernie recalled: "I couldn't have done it without the help of my father-in-law, Ed. He was my rock of Gibraltar. My family was in Michigan, but Ed, who's now 86, still treated me like family. He came from Santa Maria every day to help me. That's so rare."
Bernie wouldn't dream of changing their popular pizza and pasta sauce recipes, but she does like to keep the menu evolving. She explained: "We change some dishes to keep up with the changing appetites of our guests."
While visiting with a friend, I noticed how accommodating their servers were at every table, rushing over with a basket of oven-fresh rolls whenever anyone was seated. We asked our server, Jessica, to start us out with the Caesar and chicken breast salads, the latter providing enough for two meals. Then we asked her to split two specials: shrimp scampi raviolis and portabello mushroom raviolis with two different sauces. She handled it perfectly. We received a bowl of each type of ravioli with a side dish of creamy marinara and the classic pesto sauce, both homemade and delicious. I particularly liked the pesto with the shrimp raviolis and the rich marinara with the mushroom raviolis.
Our server, we discovered, is Bernie's niece, who moved here to attend Cuesta College. Bernie provides Jessica a room in her home and a job at Del's.
"She's the third relative to do this," the generous restaurateur said. "Now the family calls it Aunt Bernie's finishing school. I become a mentor to them and teach them a little finesse."
Bernie also frequently contributes locally by providing free pizza to the Pismo Beach Police Department for their yearly kids' day supports the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and supports the Afternoon of Epicurean Delights at Chapman House in Shell Beach.
Even with her sons helping manage the restaurant, you'll still find Bernie there most nights greeting all of her guests at their tables, making sure they're happy. What was unusual was seeing Bernie sit down to eat dinner with her son Ryan, his wife, and their four children. Few restaurateurs eat dinner in the middle of their own restaurant surrounded by guests--perhaps in fear they'd be constantly interrupted. But at Del's, Bernie doesn't think of them as customers. She treats everyone like old friends who've come to enjoy dinner with her family.
Bernie describes her restaurant as more akin to an Italian trattoria with its themed dining areas, where guests enjoy the mellow sounds of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. More importantly, she noted: "It's not upscale dining, but it's not fast food either. It's a family kind of place."
INFOBOX: Grab a slice
Del's Famous Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant is open nightly at 401 Shell Beach Road in Shell Beach. For more information, call 773-4438.
You can reach New Times' Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.