The perfect storm was brewing. Newly elected Mayor Bryan Shupe had made the revitalization of downtown Milford his pet project, and was actively looking to bring high-profile businesses into the center of town. Then, on April 17, 2015, M&T Bank moved out of the stately building at the corner of Front and Walnut Sts. M&T knew the value of that venerable space, and was very persnickety about any future tenant. Meanwhile, the cautiously aggressive Touch of Italy Restaurant Group, currently sporting four busy locations plus a bakery/commissary, was looking to extend its reach north of Lewes.
Let’s rewind just a bit: Around 1790, Abner Dill constructed the building as a tavern. Upon his passing, businessman Benjamin Washams converted it into a home and a store. Several other businesses moved into and out of the space until Delaware’s 38th governor, Peter F. Causey, sold the building to Col. Henry Fiddeman who added the third floor and founded the First National Bank of Milford. That soaring, art-deco inspired structure has been a bank ever since, including Wilmington Trust and eventually M&T Bank.
Milford’s young mayor went on a quest for entrepreneurial spirit, and one need not look much further (at least in Delaware) than Sam Calagione, head of the prosperous and diversified Dogfish Head brand. Without hesitation, Calagione suggested that Bryan contact Bob Ciprietti, longtime builder/developer and head of the Touch of Italy Restaurant Group providing well over 200 jobs to Delmarva residents. By the time M&T’s Jim Roll and Ciprietti got together, there were several other offers already on the table.
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It took a while for M&T to reach a decision, but they eventually welcomed Touch of Italy with open arms. After Ciprietti took a closer look at the structure, he realized that everything up to now had been the easy part. Three massive vaults, ceilings that ascended to thirty-plus feet, and 24-inch-thick walls would not take kindly to the installation of the plumbing, electric, ventilation and gas required to operate a busy restaurant. After much interaction among the Milford born-and-bred Mayor Shupe, Ciprietti, M&T and the City of Milford, a number of economic incentives were put in place to help ease the burden of such a massive project. All parties even worked in unison to create a plan that would allow public parking behind the building to continue, while still providing sufficient parking for restaurant patrons as well.
Shupe was ecstatic. “We are excited to welcome Touch of Italy to downtown Milford,” he announced. “Anyone who has visited their locations … knows that whether it is the food, the ambiance or community involvement, Touch of Italy has created an outstanding and unique restaurant experience. … Touch of Italy’s investment will allow Milford to continue our downtown revitalization and the preservation of historic buildings, while at the same time creating jobs for local families.”
The towering windows and art-deco appointments fascinated Bob Ciprietti. Born and raised near the very Italian Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, New York, he has a strong appreciation for family and tradition. “Every phase of our construction will be specifically calculated to preserve the one-of-a-kind design of this amazing building. The outside of the structure will remain virtually unchanged, while those who remember the old bank will still recognize the original style interwoven with the equipment and fixtures necessary to run a busy restaurant. And frankly, I can’t wait to bring my family’s recipes and the traditions of Arthur Avenue to Milford, as we have to Lewes, Rehoboth, Bethany and Ocean City, Md.”
And so it begins. It will take a while, but the glow of burning oak and the aroma of simmering red sauce (call it “gravy,” please) and sizzling pizzas will eventually light up the corner of Front and Walnut sts. The laughter and camaraderie that we have come to enjoy at Touch of Italy’s restaurants here in the Cape Region will help breathe new spirit into historic Milford, De.
Reprinted with permission from Cape Gazette 6/24/16. “The Business of Eating” by Bob Yesbek
Archival photos courtesy Milford Museum