Dinner at Cousins: Wilmington’s hidden gem

"I knew that it was kind of in my blood, and what I was really meant to do."

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Wilmington has a variety of restaurants to choose from, and if Italian food is your thing, you may want to pay a visit to Cousins Italian Deli.

“I knew that it was kind of in my blood, and what I was really meant to do.”

Joe Deliberto has been in the restaurant business since he was 12 years old, when he began washing dishes after school for $1.50 an hour.

At 23 years old, Joe and his cousin opened up an Italian deli in Patterson, New Jersey. It was called “Cousins Gourmet Deli”.

His cousin left the business after about 6 or 7 years, but Joe and his wife Debby Ponce ran the deli for another 11 years.

In 2012, Joe and Debby brought their business to Downtown Wilmington, where it still stands today on Third street.

“It was rough in the beginning to be honest, they were doing construction still on Third Street, they were redoing the roads and sidewalks and weren’t completely done yet. So, parking was a big issue, and traffic was really detoured a lot.”

At the time of their opening, Cousins only sold breakfast and lunch, but Joe and Debby eventually decided to add dinner to their menus.

“It’s just been a smash hit ever since… We’re probably sold out about 95 percent of the weekends now.”

On the first night of serving dinner, there was a full house.

“After dinner I come out and greet everyone… and I walked around the corner over there and the whole place erupted in applause. You know, it almost brought me to tears really, because it just was overwhelming… and my wife was crying, you konw, I mean it was just a feeling like ‘oh my god, like we really have something here’.”

During the day, Cousins operates a full traditional Italian Deli, with an expansive selection of sandwiches, named after different parts of Italy.

“Growing up Italian, like both of us have, it’s just the type of food I was used to eating, and going out to eat actually, in Northern New Jersey. This is very common type food there. Here it’s not so common.”

On the weekends, it transforms into a family-style authentic Italian Restaurant.

“We wanted it to feel like you were coming to your grandmother’s house, and you didn’t know what she was going to feed you, but you knew it was going to be a great feast. That’s what we want people to feel like they’re almost coming to our home to have a meal.”

With no advertising, and only word-of-mouth getting the restaurant out, Cousins truly is a hidden gem.

Joe says the goal is to make every customer feel like family, whether they’re a regular, or a first-timer.

Joe and his wife plan to keep Cousins alive for many years to come, as they too feel at home in Wilmington.

“We’re having fun doing it as much as it the customers are sitting and enjoying the meal also.”

Dinner is by reservation only, and takes place on Fridays at 6:00 p.m. and on Saturdays at 7:00 p.m.

You can stop in or call to make a reservation. Click here for additional details.

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Dinner at Cousin's Italian Deli: Wilmington's hidden gem (Photo: Juliana Lane / WWAY)