COUSINS ITALIAN DELI
Joe Deliberto didn’t deliberately open Cousins Italian Deli to bring the classic-Italian family-dinner experience to the Wilmington community, but that’s what ended up happening anyway. By using old family recipes that recall Italy’s rich culinary heritage, Cousins Deli, located in downtown Wilmington, provides a unique and communal experience.
DeLiberto, the chef, owner and operator of Cousins, hails from Clifton, New Jersey, where he says he’d worked from restaurant to restaurant his whole life until he opened his first deli in Patterson, NJ. Though he had no formal training in the culinary arts, DeLiberto says that Italian cooking is just in his blood.
“I don’t have any of my recipes written down,” he concedes. “The type of cooking that I do comes from my family. There are no bells and whistles; it’s just pure and simple food.”
He ran the deli in Patterson for 17 years before deciding it was time for a lifestyle change for he and his family. They relocated to Wilmington in 2006, and in the following years DeLiberto ran flooring and landscaping businesses, but all the while longed to return to the food industry.
So, in July 2012, he and his wife, Debby, opened Cousins across from the New Hanover County Courthouse. Offering a large selection of hot or cold sandwiches (nearly 30 on the menu, plus daily specials), pasta, fresh salads and desserts, the deli quickly became a favorite with locals.
For any first-time Cousins customer, DeLiberto recommends their eponymous sandwich: the Cousins. It’s stacked with ham, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, vinegar and mayo on a roll. “I usually have it once a week,” DeLiberto admits.
Parmesan sandwiches, like eggplant, chicken and meatball, can be found, along with another specialty, the Giuseppe, which has Capicola, Soppressata, eggplant cutlet, fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomato, basil, and balsamic vinegar. Everything on Cousins’ menu is made-to-order, and the desserts are baked in-house, such as the carrot cake which uses DeLiberto’s grandmother’s recipe.
In its first year of operation, the deli has already began to evolve. Heartier fare is being served in a more familial environment. DeLiberto sought to give his patrons the sense of the love he gets from his own family gatherings, so the Cousins’ Authentic Family-Style Dinner has been created. Now, every Friday and Saturday nights, Cousins’ dining room fills with customers to indulge a six-course dinner. From his grandmother’s biscotti and homemade bruschetta, a host of deliciousness will be indulged and the menu will consistently change.
“I’ve had people say our food reminds them of their favorite places back in Chicago, Manhattan [and even] Sicily,” DeLiberto says. “It’s comments like that, as a chef, well—what can I say? That’s why we do this.This is really just food that I grew up with. Now I’m just trying to share it with people.”
Cousins Italian Deli is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch, Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner, and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner.THE GREEKS
The Greeks Authentic Mediterranean Deli and Market on Princess Street in downtown Wilmington knows how to keep it in the family. Brother and sister Yanni and Nina Papanikolaou work with their parents, Georgios and Rula, to serve traditional Greek fare for lunch and dinner. Plus, they specialize in hard-to-find grocery items seven days a week.
Chef and owner Georgios, who was born in a small Greek village outside of Thermopylae and raised in Athens, moved his family from Greece to Durham, NC. When asked why he chose to come to the US, Papanikolaou’s response is simple: the American Dream.
“Believe it or not, it’s still alive,” he says. “This country is beautiful. It was always in the back of my mind. I believe that anyone who has not been here wants to get here.”
In 2003 Papanikolaou was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, and years later his wife had a bout with breast cancer. After her recovery and his stabilization, the couple looked for a place in the US with a milder climate that reminded them of their homeland. Soon enough, the family set their sights toward NC’s coast. “Wilmington was a clear choice due to the beauty of the city and the beach,” Papanikolaou says.
Since the family opened The Greeks’ doors in May 2012, the Wilmington community has embraced the deli’s celebration of Greek cuisine and grocery items. Georgios says from day one it was very important to have his business live up to its name, meaning that he wants his customers to get an authentic Greek experience with each visit.
“It is fantastic that the people responded the way they did,” he notes. “It is utterly important for a place to live up to its promise. It is because of honesty—that is why we have authentic in our title.”
Some fan-favorite deli dishes at The Greeks include the souvlaki (skewers), horiatiki (Greek salad) and revithokeftedes (falafel). However, Papanikolaou says while his favorite dish changes day to day (“Greek cuisine is so diverse, it has a lot of choices”), for a first-time customer, he would recommend the gyros off the spit, which are shaved on the spot with fresh tzatziki and a side of Greek salad or fries with Greek seasoning. He says they even bring the spices and the herbs that grow wild on the mountains in Greece to Wilmington.
Papanikolaou’s culinary influence comes from the contradicting styles of his parents. While his dad’s side of the family comes from Smyrna, his mother’s side is from Roumeli. According to Papanikolaou, the two types of Greek cooking are culinary opposites: Smyrna offers complex meals while food from Roumeli is rustic and simple.
“When one side of the family was cooking, the other side always would say that they would do it wrong,” Papanikolaou laughs. “The benefit, of course, was my palate. I saw both delicious dishes and 10 different ways and combinations to mix herbs and cook—a culinary clash all to my benefit!”
Papanikolaou’s main inspiration for creating The Greeks comes with a sense of pride in heritage, but also correct representation of the food. “Greek cooking is on the same level as French; it’s complex and simple at the same time,” Papanikolaou explains. “I could not find authentic Greek cuisine anywhere, only bits and pieces. So the idea was planted in my head very early on that I wanted a 100 percent authentic Greek place—not a fusion of Mediterranean cuisine.”
The response and loyalty from the customers has been overwhelming thus far. But not so much that Papanikolaou and his family aren’t continuously looking to branch out. In fact, another The Greeks is already in the works, as well as a new The Greeks Authentic Taverna. While remaining tight-lipped on the fine details, Papanikolaou says the Taverna will be a full-service restaurant, complete with live authentic Greek entertainment.