If you knew that Dan Pennington learned about cooking at his Italian mom’s apron, you might form an impression about Pass The Salt Cafe, his cozy Currituck restaurant: Mediterranean decor, marinara in the air and a menu that will tie your tongue in knots.
And you’d be wrong.
“There’s a big misperception about Italian cooking, that it’s full of all these spices, and really Italian cooking is very simple cooking,” Pennington says. “There’s not but four or five ingredients in the whole dish.”
Hence his motto, and his formula for small-town success: Keep it simple.
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Pass The Salt, in just a few years practically in the middle of nowhere, has made regulars out of both locals and Outer Banks-bound commuters for food that’s innovative yet familiar and for an experience that’s like dining in your favorite aunt’s living room at a family reunion.
“It’s just adorable. It’s very relaxed. Nobody’s pretentious,” says Stacie Moss, who lives 2.2 miles away (she knows the distance exactly) and has lunch often at Pass the Salt with her husband, Tripp. “It’s just the cutest place in the world.”
And, oh yeah: “The food is fabulous.”
‘I just got this passion’
Pennington, 50, isn’t a trained chef. In fact, he ran a container company in Virginia for 20 years until he sold it during the recession without a real Plan B. But he and his wife, Tina, owned some rental properties, including a small house they bought in 2009 in Currituck, a community of about 700 souls that tourists zip through on Caratoke Highway as they drive between Virginia and Kitty Hawk.
And he does love to cook. “So I told my wife, ‘Well, I’ll just turn this house into a cafe,’ ” he recalled. Oddly enough, she thought it was a good idea.
So Pass The Salt was born in a small 1930s yellow house with a gravel drive and a white picket fence. The Penningtons redid the interior with colorfully painted wooden chairs and tables, some made from the home’s old doors, and put a church pew at the door for diners who have to wait for one of the 25-odd seats. Its name is inspired by a passage in Matthew – “You are the salt of the earth” – and what Dan and Tina see as a call to enhance the flavor of life.
“To me the restaurant was more about the community, and what we believe about community, than about the food,” he said.
But its real inspiration is his mom, Rosaria.
“My mom, she was a fanatic of a cook,” he said recently while getting ready to open for lunch. “One thing about Italians, their love language is food.”
Rosaria Fenefe grew up in Naples in a family of 10 kids, living on meager means. “Garlic, basil, stuff they could grow in their garden,” he said. “That’s where she learned to cook. Simple, but with a lot of taste.”
She brought her love of cuisine to Virginia Beach when her husband left military service and settled in the States.
“Every night, we would eat at 5 or 5:30, and so about 4 o’clock I’d do my homework and I’d watch her cook, and so I just got this passion,” Pennington says. “That’s how I learned how to put tastes together.
“And to this day, she still calls me up and gives me advice.”
‘Kind of a little genius’
That advice undoubtedly includes a reminder to keep it simple. It’s a good small-town strategy – something Pennington learned along the way.
Pancetta? That pig won’t fly, even if you call it bacon.
“I really wanted to do things that were different,” he said, “but I had to kind of keep it to things I learned they would eat. It’s kinda crazy. We’re in a farming community, but I can’t even sell a tomato.
“We had an open-faced sandwich – Texas toast, mashed potatoes, roast beef, brown gravy. That sold out every night. I got so sick of making it that I just took it off the menu.
“There’s only so much you can do with starches and meats. So you have to be kind of a little genius.”
So his handcrafted menu is inventive but straightforward – flatbread pizzas, salads, soups, sandwiches (including a tasty pimiento cheese creation with a red pepper jelly kick), chicken dishes, some creative dinner entrees and a dessert case.
There are burgers – “the Ultimate Brumsey burger is awesome,” says regular Stephen Schmid of Moyock, just up the road. And the most popular appetizer is “gravy fries” – because what the heck is “poutine” anyway?
Doing the whole menu
One frequent tribute to Pass the Salt is that the menu becomes a sort of checklist challenge.
“I get something different every time,” says Coreena Taylor, the church secretary at Pilmoor Memorial United Methodist around the corner, whose latest discovery was a margherita flatbread pizza. “I’ve never been unhappy with anything.”
James Persons, 16, of Norfolk has decided to work his way through all of the sandwiches during stops on the way to the family beach house in Kill Devil Hills.
“The food is consistently amazing,” he says. “There’s not one thing on the menu that’s better than the others.” His mom, Debra, nods as she enjoys a gyro.
But even on a return visit, you’ll want to use a navigation aid so you don’t miss Pass the Salt. Even though it’s in historic downtown Currituck, it’s a block off Caratoke Highway, U.S. 158, the main road between Virginia and the Outer Banks at Dare County. And the only real landmarks nearby are down the street, also off the beaten path – the old Currituck jail and courthouse (two of the state’s oldest county buildings) and the Knotts Island ferry landing.
As long as he’s in business, though, Pennington will have a spot on the map for his creativity.
He has even managed to get the locals “out of their bounds a little bit” – putting prosciutto on a sandwich, for instance, or a little apple.
But the cafe will remain a simple pleasure. And to lay to rest one more misperception: Despite its Italian roots, Pass the Salt is as American as the ice cream sold up front in summer.
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick
If you go
▪ Pass The Salt Cafe, 138 Courthouse Road, Currituck. 252-722-3355. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Closed Sunday. passthesaltcafe.com. On Facebook: facebook/passthesaltcafe.
On the menu
▪ Gravy fries (cheddar and jack, bacon bits and brown gravy over fries): $6.50
▪ Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil over house-made pesto): $7
▪ Ultimate burger (cheddar, bacon, grilled onions, Thousand Island): $11.50
▪ Pamlico pimiento sandwich (with bacon and red pepper jelly): $7.50
▪ Flew the Coop (grilled chicken breast with Granny Smith apples, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, honey balsamic glaze on ciabatta): $8.50
▪ Hey! How you doin’? (prosciutto, hickory smoked ham, applewood bacon, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, arugula, balsamic on ciabatta): $9
▪ Shrimp-n-grits (with pimiento cheese): $10