Cooking Up Tradition

In the current year, it seems that everyone is in a rush. A rush to get to work, a rush to get home, a rush to cook and eat, and a rush to get to bed to do it all over again.  Currently, on Union Street in Wilmington, Delaware, all of the original properties are being ripped up, replaced, or renovated into something that can match the fast-paced environment that we all live in. But how nice is it to have a place amongst the construction where the tomatoes are given time to grow at their own pace until perfectly ripe and are then simmered slowly for hours in a pot to create the perfect red sauce? The Wilmington community is blessed to have such a place that, in a world focused on urgent change, can take the time to slow things down and appreciate life without hurry. The place for unchanged tradition in Wilmington is called Mrs. Robino’s, and it has been settled at 520 North Union Street as a community monument for over 77 years.

Outside view of Mrs. Robino’s on Union Street

While change is not necessarily a bad thing for the world, it can jeopardize some of the many local traditions that a community may cherish. As I ventured down the one-way street towards Mrs. Robino’s, I could tell that the area was changing. The street was under construction, with lanes closed and orange signs littering the street. There were homes being gutted and renovated, and as I drove by I couldn’t help but wonder where all of the displaced people were living. However, as I pulled up towards 520 North Union Street, my destination appeared to stand tall and strong. The restaurant’s sign looked like it could have been an original, not in a ‘ew that 1940s sign really needs to go’ kind of way, but in the kind of way that is vintage and creates a refreshing, yet mysterious, sense of nostalgia.

Walking up two steps to get into the restaurant, and with a tug on the large coal-colored door, I entered Mrs. Robino’s and was transported to a place of family, memory, and, much to my appreciation, tradition. While the floors were likely not the original and the walls had to have been repainted a dark charcoal a few times since their original state, the restaurant was immediately welcoming. It was like being in my grandparent’s house, where there is an evident pride for the people in my Grandmom’s life. Polaroid photos of customers lined the walls, vintage looking lamps hung above each of the tables, and the swinging door to the kitchen left me in awe as it swung effortlessly back and forth. The food that came out of that door seemed to time travel from Mrs. Robino’s 1940s Italian-style kitchen where she perfected the recipes to the present, rushed world.

Polaroid photos covering the walls

Sitting down at a table, after following the ‘please seat yourself sign,’ I noticed the cute Fall decor that so kindly made the place feel like I was sitting at the table in my own humble dining room. While somewhat tacky, the string lights and maple leaves reminded me of being at home during the holidays, celebrating and enjoying life with the people I love so much. Almost instantly after taking my seat, I realized that I’d chosen a place that was settled way to close to the kitchen for me to handle. It was going to be torture not because of the clatter that was coming from whatever tools it took to make award-winning meals, but because of the smells that wafted by me as the door swung open. The fresh, ripe tomato and garlicy scent was potent, and made my angry stomach screech louder each time that door carelessly flung open.

Ordering the most popular dish on the menu, the homemade spaghetti with the traditional, homemade red sauce, I was certain that I was in for a treat. When it was finally my turn to experience true Italian-style bliss, the large plate was set in front of me on top of the ‘classic cocktails’ paper placemat. Not to ruin anything for future diners, but I must say that the cocktails on that piece of paper are not the only classic thing that is served in Mrs. Robino’s restaurant. The pasta sauce was far from chunky. It was like the pure tomatoes had been boiled down to be so smooth, yet remained thick enough to compliment the doughy pasta so harmoniously. Twisting the fork around, circle after circle, I captured enough of the resisting strings of spaghetti.  In defense of the pasta, I probably wouldn’t want to part from the sauce either.

The Traditional Spaghetti and Meatballs

Upon taking a bite, I felt that I could envision Mrs. Robino carefully stirring the beloved sauce and carefully cutting each strand of pasta to perfection. While it is obvious that it was not Mrs. Robino who made what was now on my plate, I am thankful that the restaurant remains in the Robino family. I could tell that whoever was behind the restless swinging door payed careful attention to each of the ingredients and was following the original recipes as Mrs. Robino would have wanted.

It’s no wonder many of those polaroid photos on the wall pictured costumers grinning from ear-to-ear. There was nothing artificial about the sauce or pasta, nothing fake about the atmosphere, and nothing horribly rushed or modern about the place. After devouring the plate of food like a garbage disposal, which was a generous portion I must add, I cleaned up the plate with bread that came from a place just a few doors down, called Serpe & Sons Bakery, that also has had its fair share of successful years on the block– 69 years to be exact.

Fresh bread from Serpe & Sons Bakery

As I pushed my chair back to make room for my bowling ball-sized stomach, I realized that in this ever-changing world, the ideal Italian family restaurant will never change, and Mrs. Robino’s is a perfect example as to why. People have flocked to Mrs. Robino’s for years, and it is proven not only by the photos of the patrons on the walls, but also by the attitudes that the customers have as they enter the door. There are not many first-timers at a place like Mrs. Robino’s. Instead, there are grandparents, with their children, and their children, who will likely be sitting in the exact same seats with their future generations in years to come.

As Billy Joel puts it in the song, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, I’ll “meet you any time you want, in our Italian restaurant.” Billy Joel does not stutter when he says ‘our Italian Restaurant.’ Similar to the Italian establishment he is referencing, Mrs. Robino’s restaurant is far from belonging only to the well-known woman who goes by Mrs. Robino. Instead, the establishment it is ours. It’s a place for the Wilmington community, and the occasional out-of-state visitor, to run to when the rush of the modern world seems to distract from the traditions that we so graciously grew up on. It’s a place for people feel at home, a place that has its’ roots so deep in tradition, that it will be impossible for any future construction projects on Union Street to dig through.

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