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Bardea Takes Italian Beyond The Red-Sauce Classics

Antimo DiMeo and Scott Stein are partners at Bardea restaurant in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Previously, Stein had worked as a restaurateur and lounge operator, while DiMeo—also Bardea’s chef—started cooking in his family’s pizzeria and went on to work under Michelin-starred chefs in Europe. Bardea was a semifinalist for a 2019 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, and DiMeo is a semifinalist in 2022 as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

ANTIMO DIMEO: My parents did New York-style pizzerias. When I was growing up, they would always say “You don’t want to work in the industry—you got to go to school, go for business.” I went to school while still working at the pizzeria on the weekends, but during my freshman year at Drexel, I became obsessed with Neapolitan pizza. My dad was opening up another pizzeria on Market Street, and I’d find myself in business class reading about pizza dough.

I’m an OCD perfectionist, so I wanted to try it all. We tested all the doughs. I worked seven days a week, and I made every single pizza in that pizzeria for six months. Call me crazy, but I was on a mission to make the perfect pizza.

We planned a trip to Italy because that’s where we get our flour and bufala mozzarella. When we were there, I saw a photo with two Michelin-star chefs who I wanted to possibly work for one day. So I asked Antimo Caputo of Caputo Flour to help me out. He got us a reservation at Ristorante Torre del Saracino near Naples the next day, and we had the best dinner of my entire life. We were there for three hours, and chef Gennaro Esposito pulled us outside and said, “If you want to work here, you can start tomorrow.” I said, “I’m not ready to start yet,” but I went back to America, got my stuff together, dropped out of college, and came back to Italy. The rest is history.

When we opened Bardea, I was 26 and I didn’t know anybody. The night before we opened, a plate fell and cracked right on my thumb, severing my tendon and nerve so I couldn’t even cook on the line during opening week. I couldn’t even do the pasta! But then we got the James Beard nomination, and I was in shock.

SCOTT STEIN: My background is in high-end lounges—celebrity-driven, Asian fusion type concepts—but I took a break because the business was so intense. Someone in the PR world said, “There’s this guy doing Neapolitan wood-fired pizza. It’s becoming super trendy.” It wasn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I said I’d be down with meeting him. I don’t know what it was, but when Antimo and I sat down, there was something captivating there, and we just connected—we spoke the same language. He reminded me of a younger me. We left that meeting saying we should talk about doing something together.

When I tried Antimo’s Neapolitan pizza, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I remember that first bite. I knew there was something truly amazing here. When Antimo went to Italy for a year and had a formal training at Ristorante Torre del Saracino, he brought back the fundamentals of “less is more,” and so we ironed this concept out in our minds.

We thought Philadelphia was going to be the place for Bardea, but we never found the right spot. Then we did a tour in downtown Wilmington, and we had that a-ha moment. It’s an up-and-coming area, a great business district, and a great suburban area, so that’s where Bardea began in 2018.

Bardea restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Courtesy Bardea.

DIMEO: Since we’ve opened, we’ve called it “Interpretive Italian.” Year one was definitely leaning into those familiar flavors, but we’d put our spin on it. Each year that’s gone by, we mark it on our menu and do a revamp—Bardea 2.0, Bardea 3.0. There’s always something Italian in nature—whether it’s the technique or ingredient or a spin on a classic Italian dish—but we use ingredients from all over. We have a whole massive shelf of just Mexican ingredients, another shelf with Asian imports, three different types of fish sauces, kombu, bonito, the list goes on.

One of my favorite chefs ever—René Redzepi from Noma in New York—what really caught my eye about him was how he used fermentation. Now we grow our own koji and make our own fermented sauces. It’s a flavor you can’t get anywhere else because we make it here. It allowed me to create our own flavor profile. Sometimes we joke and say Bardea is like a flavor.

You have to have the passion and the heart to do it, because if you don’t, no one is going to have the patience to wait three months on a sauce that may or may not be good. It really altered the way I approach food and my techniques in general. I recently got a cat last year and named him Koji because I really love koji! We literally turned one mold into 15 different applications in the kitchen. I’m predicting it’s going to be a big part of kitchens in the future.

STEIN: There’s a stigma with Italian food that it’s all sauces, gravy, pizza. Burrata is such a mainstream ingredient now. When Antimo went to Italy, he was so inspired by the chefs and the diversity of the kitchen. In Italy, they’re taking inspiration from all over the Mediterranean and Asia. I think it really opened Antimo’s eyes.

DIMEO: That trip to Italy was honestly a life-changing experience. I call it a culinary boot camp. It wasn’t easy—18 hour days starting at 9am until 1am, sometimes a quick little break. It was busy every day. Intense, high stress, high anxiety. My very first day we had a whole table of hazelnuts I had to shell, peel, and quarter, and I remember saying to myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” It just made me stronger. It gave me the foundation for who I am today.

I quickly learned when I was there that I would never just only cook Italian food. I want to know about Mexican food, Vietnamese food, all foods. I never wanted to have burrata on the menu, but I wanted to challenge myself. Now we do a burrata pop tart where we laminate the puff pastry and make our own butter by hand. It turned into something so simple, but so delicious—it’s the approach of using something that people are familiar with and making it fun. Some people think fine-dining is all fancy stuff, but for me, if you’re able to make something fun and fancy, that’s when you really nail it.

During the pandemic, it was surreal. When we closed during those first two weeks, I was like, “Nice, I get to relax, recover.” We were a very busy restaurant, and we never got a chance to breathe. For two years, it was work, work, work, six days a week, open to close. Then two weeks turned into six weeks.

I realized I had to take advantage of that time, so I became obsessed with fermentation and growing koji. I read book after book after book. It’s weird, but that’s the moment that allowed me to take the next step as a chef. It really changed the way I cook. In Italy, we never used to ferment anything, but now it’s a very big part of how we cook here.

STEIN: The last two years were not easy, by any means, we had our dark periods. But Antimo came to me with this whole refreshed perspective. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to do this whole take-out thing. We tried it, it went well, we did some creative family meals. But we didn’t feel that energy in full swing when people were dining in the restaurant, hearing that noise, and getting to see their reaction. Our spirit is in that.

We started at 25 percent capacity dining and gradually went up, but the part that got us really motivated was guests coming in at the beginning and saying the experience was getting better and better. We never got that kind of feedback before. I think that momentum really pushed us and took Antimo to the next level.

We were always strong in front of our staff. We always tried to make them know we always have their back. When we opened back up, it was magic. It felt like starting over again. It’s made us better—better operators, better restaurateurs, better chefs.

DIMEO: There was a sense of camaraderie with the team, all of us were in it together. Without the staff, we wouldn’t have been able to re-open. We’re only two people. We can’t do everything on our own, and we’re only as strong as the people around us. The labor shortage has been difficult. We had to be a little more creative. We’ve tried it all—Craigslist, culinary agents, social media, referrals. The pandemic changed the whole playing field.

STEIN: But we don’t poach. We know our other restaurateurs are going through the same struggle. Antimo was the one who suggested more days off for the staff. We planned a paid five-day break in January six months earlier, but the timing was impeccable because it was right at the height of Omicron. Things were going well, and the last couple days of December, we just got hit. It was the hardest we got hit since the start of the pandemic. Everyone was starting to feel down. That break meant the world to our staff.

We want to surround our staff with talented people, knowing that whatever they’re going to give, we’re going to give back. We use the word “career” instead of job, because the restaurant industry has that stigma. But you can have a great livelihood in this industry. We’re making a commitment to promote from within. We have servers becoming managers, and they see they have an opportunity. Antimo has done a great job with plugging in line cooks and giving them more responsibility as time goes on. I see younger chefs today in their 20s that I hope are going to be running their own restaurant one day.

We have to rethink how we do things. One of our sous chefs, Amanda Nichols, is a single mom, and childcare during the pandemic was a nightmare. She’s an asset to this business. She’s one of the single most important people in this kitchen. We have to work with her and figure out a schedule that can work for her too. We try to treat our staff like family and put ourselves in their shoes. I think when we have their backs, they have ours.

We’re fully staffed at the moment, but we’re on the verge of opening another restaurant. Wilmington is a big meat and steak town, and we kept hearing people say they wanted steak. That’s how Bardea Steak was born.

It’s going to be one of the hardest openings we’ve ever done in our life, because we’re going to stretch between both restaurants. Most of the new hires, we want them to come to Bardea, talk to the other staff, feel the magic, and feel connected. Finding people is a challenge right now, but when they come in here and hear the positivity from our current staff, that’s a big win for us.

DIMEO: When we made the announcement for Bardea Steak, it was insane—everyone was so excited, reaching out on social media. We joked when we announced the steakhouse, we called it a “Meat Kingdom.” But now people reach out saying they’re excited for the Meat Kingdom coming!

I challenged myself with creating a concept that wasn’t just a typical menu. When I first started looking at menus, I noticed everyone does prime beef, Wagyu, rib eye, filet, porterhouse, and occasionally an off-cut, but I learned that there are different breeds of cows just like there are different breeds of dogs and pigs. From there, it was a trigger—I read about so many different types of cows.

Photo: Courtesy Bardea.

In the last six months, we’ve tried 50 different breeds. I made a commitment to not source any beef from any industrial farm, only small farms. Our signature premiere cow—Chianina, an ancient legendary breed from Italy—we were able to source from Tuscan Cattle in El Paso, Texas. That’s the only one farm in the entire country right now with those cows. I’ve only ever eaten this meat in Italy, so I didn’t even know it existed here.

We want people to leave Bardea Steak wanting to know more about what they’re eating, and why they’re eating it.

STEIN: At Bardea, we don’t take ourselves too seriously though. You can come in and get a low-key meal if you don’t want the full Bardea experience. Wilmington doesn’t have a sports team, so when we were semifinalists for the James Beard Award, people were coming in and high-fiving us. Wilmington has a lot of pride. We felt that right off the bat.

Dr. Jill Biden has dined at the restaurant more than President Joe Biden. We always learned to not talk politics in the restaurant industry, but still, the president is beloved down here. It was Dr. Biden’s birthday, and he just strolled in with his sunglasses on. He’s always in DC, so when he walked in, the restaurant went silent. The whole place was in awe. Antimo was so pumped up, and the big thing President Biden ordered was spaghetti and meatballs.

DIMEO: He was pretty content eating the classics. So I said, all right, I’m going to make him the best spaghetti and meatballs he’ll have in his whole life!