What happens in Cape May, stays in Cape May. Sometimes, what happens in Cape May brings former residents back home to fulfill their dreams.
Will Riccio, 32, was born and raised in Cape May. His first job at 13 was working at Louisa’s Cafe as a dishwasher. He then worked the appetizer station, desserts, waited on tables and then started cooking. All in all, his tenure lasted on and off for seven years, even throughout college.
All of that training would serve him well later on in his career. After college, seeking employment with an interior design firm in New York, Riccio left town for a while. Then it hit him.
“I felt like I wanted to do something creative in Cape May,” Riccio says.
When the former owners of Louisa’s — Louisa Hull and Doug Dietsch — decided to move on after 34 years, they must have had one person in mind to pick up the torch. After all, the joke between the couple and Riccio had always been the same one: “If you ever want to sell, give me a call,” Riccio says.
The timing turned out to be great for everyone involved. The original Cape May farm-to-table restaurant changed hands when Riccio took over in March.
One of the things that Riccio always loved about Louisa’s was the good vibes the tiny dining room gave off. Being an interior decorator, he just couldn’t resist making a few changes to freshen it up the way he wanted it. A quick, two-week renovation did the trick.
As for a new menu, Riccio knew to leave well enough alone.
“The thing about Louisa’s is, there is such a diehard customer base who has been eating there for 34 years,” Riccio says.
Sensitive to their loyalty, any tweaks he would make were intended to show the regulars that he could deliver on all the things they had come to love.
Keeping many of the staples on his menu, Riccio is now working more with Beach Plum Farms in West Cape May to emphasize very local ingredients.
“We’re real excited with the asparagus now, and our first strawberries are coming in this weekend,” Riccio says. “Pushing that (farm-to-table concept) even further than it was before.”
Riccio is also working with local fishermen to provide local seafood for his tables.
His sister Honna Riccio brings a lot to the table, as well, having worked at Beach Plum Farms for a year and at Quail Hill Farm near Montauk, Long Island, N.Y. Honna was also involved in Dock to Dish, a group specializing in catching fish in the morning and delivering it that same day.
“With the restaurant being so small — 20 seats — we constantly feel like we are cooking for a bunch of friends,” says Riccio, whose customers have been known to get up and dance after finishing their meals. “It’s like a big dinner party every night.”
There is no printed menu at Louisa’s. For Riccio, the beauty of a blackboard menu allows Louisa’s to offer only the freshest ingredients each day.
“Last weekend we got some snapper blues, so beautiful,” says Riccio, who notes that when they ran out of fish, diners still had many other fresh dishes to choose from.
Louisa’s menu is always in transition, offering minor changes day to day based on what is available. A Facebook photo of the blackboard menu from the opening week featured snapper blues ($22) with the choice of a hot pepper spice rub or escoveitch fish sauce, an option the kitchen often offers.
“Sometimes, if we love a sauce that we came up with and we think it is awesome, we serve that with the fish,” says Riccio, adding that it is also common to offer a couple of sauces for diners to make their own choice.
Riccio knows some things just can’t come off the menu, such as lump crab cakes featuring homemade breadcrumbs and a base that is mixed to order then cooked in a cast-iron pan. Other staples include a vegetable cake, pasta and a Caribbean chicken dish.
While the previous owners added a red meat choice to the menu about three years ago, Riccio is back to mostly seafood and chicken as the proteins, in honor of the lighter, healthier way of eating he prefers.
Sauces are served on the side so customers control portion size and flavor.
Desserts, too, change with the season, although like the regular menu there are a few staples. Bread pudding, in some form, coexists with Louisa’s chocolate pie with an apricot-orange glaze. A special dessert such as red velvet cake uses red beets for color instead of using something artificial. Honna Riccio makes all of the desserts, including an amazing chocolate mousse pie.
The small size of the room not only affects the menu, but the service as well, which is always friendly thanks to servers such as Karen Roth, a customer favorite who has worked at Louisa’s for 14 years and knows the regulars well.
Some vacationers who come for the week have been known to book a table every night, another quirk that makes Louisa’s such a fun place for Riccio.
“We love creating a fun, whimsical experience for people,” he says. “It’s just a sweet little place.”