There is no chicken parm or pasty Alfredo swimming in boxed spaghetti at Azzurro, Rehoboth Beach’s newest Italian oven and bar.
Those dishes — arguably — have a time and place, but chef and co-owner Francesco Agostino sticks to preparing the fresh dishes of his Mediterranean homeland, with a distinct focus on seafood.
Francesco was born in Piedmont, a northern region in Italy close to the Swiss Alps. He comes from a family of restaurant owners, and so grew up working in professional kitchens.
Cooking in the traditional Italian way today is much like learning to write, Francesco says: You will evolve with technology and master typing on the computer, but writing by hand is the most important lesson.
Take Azzurro’s ragu, a traditional hearty sauce of meat, carrots, shallots and no fuss. Francesco uses this as a base but lets his go overnight and pours in good red wine for deeper taste. Black truffles from Italy lend sophistication, and short rib gives the sauce more striated chew than its cheaper ground beef cousin.
The same goes for the lasagna ribboned with slow-cooked oxtail.
“There’s a reason the rules survive for so long, but we revisit them in a different key,” Francesco said.
Simplicity is one of them: It remains present in the whole branzino, imported fresh from Italy or Spain daily, finished with white wine, lemon, shallot. Simplicity becomes a time machine for third-generation Italians eating at Azzurro who suddenly find themselves in their grandmother’s kitchens.
“It’s all about emotion,” Francesco said. “That’s why I sometimes hate the word ‘food’ in English. We don’t have that word in Italian. For Italians, food is art, it’s passion, it’s love. The last thing you think about is, ‘Oh, fill my belly’ and then go home.”
This slowed down, have a glass of wine and socialize experience was part of the design for Azzurro, which Francesco and co-owner Tonya Agostino, his wife, opened in May.
The couple took over what used to be Papa Grande’s — a 19th century building just off the main strip that matched the old-world style they wanted.
“Azzurro” means light blue in Italian, and it is the color that people define the Mediterranean around Italy as, Francesco said.
The name is reflected in the breeze over the restaurant’s outdoor dining area, in the sushi-grade tuna from a local seafood place in Lewes.
They get many of their herbs and other produce from a woman who drops by every Sunday from Milton, Tonya said.
“We want to be supported by the locals and at the same time support the locals,” Francesco said.
Their pasta maker, however, was imported from Italy, and it makes the fresh base for one of their specials, frutti di mare, which has sea “fruits” like lobster, scallops and clams.
It has elicited a few, “We’ve never had a pasta like this,” from guests, according to Francesco.
Forty-five Italian wines are offered (A glass of wine should accompany any good meal, Francesco said) as are punchy liqueurs like the house-made limoncello.
At Azzurro, it is easy to go on about the fresh buffalo mozzarella, the cherry tomatoes, saffron and wine sauce, how elevated the simplest of dishes become with higher quality ingredients.
Or to stress to those visiting to please never order the tuna well (as in, overcooked).
But Azzurro is best captured in a group of friends hanging at the bar upstairs on a recent weekend.
They are giggling, a little tipsy from the limoncello as they chow down homemade pizza. They haven’t seen one other in a long time, and formality ceases as they catch up on the silly, eyebrow-raising bits of their lives, one sip and a few laughs at a time.