Wilmington — On a warm Sunday afternoon, the enticing aroma of Italian red sauce wafts out of a plain Knights of Columbus hall into the streets on the edge of Wilmington’s Little Italy.
This Knights hall, at 1801 Lancaster Ave., serves as a meeting place and catering hall most of the time. But on the second and fourth Sunday afternoon of every month, it opens to the public as an Italian restaurant, complete with checkered tablecloths and parmesan cheese shakers on the tables.
Inside, volunteers from St. Anthony of Padua Parish and members of the Knights of Columbus’ St. Pius X Council are busy cooking and serving the food giving off that delicious aroma. It’s a tradition that’s been going for about 15 years.
“We’re the best-kept secret in town,” said Len Desmond, who has been volunteering here for four or five years. “A lot of people don’t know about us.”
While dinner is being served, music comes from a jukebox with everything from Shakira to the Clancy Brothers, with a healthy dose of classic performers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Diners have a choice of platters: generous portions of spaghetti or ravioli, with meatballs, or roast chicken with potatoes and a vegetable. Or the chicken and the pasta can be combined. Dinner also includes a full salad bar and dinner roll. “The salad bar alone is a meal,” said Ramona DeRocili, who has been serving for about five years.
Herb Casalena, Wilmington dentist and Knight, is the head chef, stirring up the sauce and spaghetti in large pots while volunteers wrap to-go orders and run plates out to the dining room. The recipes are his, and Casalena has a personal favorite.
“Even better than my sauce is my chicken,” he says.
If there’s room after the full dinner, diners can choose from a variety of homemade desserts prepared by Evelyn Casalena, the doctor’s wife.
Preparations begin on the previous Friday, and the Sunday crowd usually numbers a little over 100 over the course of the afternoon. However, the staff is prepared for any number of people.
“One Sunday, we had about 300 people. We still don’t know why, but no one complained (about the longer serving time). People are nice. It was really something.” said Desmond.
Folks wishing to celebrate a big birthday, anniversary or other event with friends and family are also welcomed. Arrangements should be made with the staff ahead of time, so tables can be grouped together.
“You can’t beat the price. We make a nice corner for them,” said Desmond. “We’ll even sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ if we find out it’s your birthday. We like to sing.”
No one is exactly sure when the Knights began to offer the dinners, but the consensus seemed to be that they’ve been going on for about 15 years. One reason they might lose track of the time is the fun they are having while serving.
“Oh my goodness I’ve been doing this so long I couldn’t even tell you — as long as they’ve been here,” said Elizabeth Capodanno, who helps with desserts. Rosemary Piazza said the volunteers really enjoy their time during the dinners. “We laugh and cut up with each other.”
The dinners are one of the council’s main fundraisers, and proceeds support the council’s charitable work at St. Anthony’s Parish.
In addition to the Sunday dinners, the Knights also offer full-service catering at the hall and have hosted many local community groups and meetings.
“Weddings, funeral luncheons, baptisms. We do anything,” said Desmond.