The House of William and Merry: A Labor of Love in Northern Delaware
Drive west from Wilmington, Delaware’s largest city, and the urban landscape quickly gives way to the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley. The winding road leads to Hockessin, a small village on the edge of Kennett Square’s mushroom country. It is an unassuming area for one of the region's most creative restaurants. But The House of William & Merry, located in a 19th-century farmhouse with a wraparound porch, is a hidden gem that’s worth any travel time.
Guests here are rewarded with such dishes as a bronzed scallop with sautéed ramps tinged pink by pickling juice, or pan-roasted turbot lolling in kimchee broth with forbidden rice. Even the beefy lunchtime burger is a beauty. Topped with Vermont aged cheddar and crispy bacon, the 10-ounce Hereford patty boasts a zesty smear of chipotle-bacon aioli.
The restaurant, which opened in 2011, is much more than a business for Bill Hoffman and Merry Catanuto, the husband-and-wife owners. They live in the adjoining three-bedroom apartment with son Nicholas, 14 and daughter Elise, 4. Their third “baby,” The House of William & Merry is a blend of their heritage.
Born in Fairfax, Virginia, Bill was 14 when his family moved to Bear, Delaware. His parents were often too busy to do more than heat frozen prepared meals for their four children. But his grandmothers provided plenty of culinary inspiration.
He marveled at his Irish Catholic grandmother’s ability to feed large groups, a skill she cultivated while raising 13 children. “She could make the most amazing pot roast and roast chicken,” he says. “I always smelled beautiful food in the house.” His maternal grandmother was a home economics teacher in Missoula, Montana. Hoffman and his siblings spent summers with her. They picked raspberries for pies, fished and made meals with fresh ingredients from her garden.
At 19, Bill got a job clearing tables at McGlynns Pub and Restaurant, one of the many restaurants owned by Bob and Sandy Ashby. He liked the vibe and the bustle of activity during service. When a cook quit, Bill jumped on the line, and he never looked back. He met Merry in 2000 when she was training at McGlynns for the opening of the Deer Park Tavern, the iconic Newark restaurant that the Ashbys purchased and renovated.
Born in New York, Merry grew up in Newark. But when she was 16, her mother moved Merry and her older sister to the San Francisco area. (Her father died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease when she was a child.) The move was hard on the teenager, who felt inadequate in school.
Although she didn’t like calculus, she did like to cook. A fan of the TV show “Great Chefs of the World,” she helped make holiday meals and did “cooking demonstrations” for her friends. When Merry balked at going to college, her mother nudged her toward culinary school. It was a good thing. Merry felt instantly at home on the campus of the California Culinary Academy, now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco. “I found my people. I found my place,” she recalls. “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Merry always planned to return to Newark, but a sour relationship prompted her to move sooner rather than later. “This is where my heart always was,” she says of the Delaware area.
Merry and Bill hit it off as friends, and the camaraderie slid into a romance. Under her urging, Bill enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He worked at several restaurants, including the legendary Green Room in the Hotel du Pont and Eclipse, both in Wilmington. At Eclipse, Chef Patrick D’Amico introduced Bill to foie gras, truffles and the other ingredients that are now so common at The House of William & Merry.
The couple, who wed in 2007, had a hectic life. Both were busy in their respective kitchens. When Nicholas was born, they had to find a daycare or babysitter. “I finally said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Merry says. “We started to look at doing something ourselves.”
The House of William & Merry debuted in June 2011 in a former hair salon. (Much to Bill's dismay, Merry had sacrificed her long locks during a hair appointment to scope out the place.)
Influenced by a California aesthetic, the dining room is a study in minimalism. The dark tables are simply dressed with crisply folded white napkins. Framed prints provide the subtle artwork on the white walls. A beamed ceiling adds a rustic element. The elegant but spare setting is the perfect backdrop for the artistically presented plates. “We wanted the food to be the focus,” Merry says.
There are dining rooms upstairs and downstairs, as well as a bar made with wine corks and a thick layer of shiny epoxy. Pull up a barstool for an insider’s look at the magic happening in the open kitchen.
Because their cooking styles are so different — Merry prefers to work from recipes, while Bill takes an out-of-the-box approach — she manages the dining room and office while he’s in the kitchen. She steps in if needed.
The arrangement works. To say that The House of William & Merry is producing some of the most original dishes in the Delmarva region is an understatement. Picture an appetizer with tuna prepared three ways: cured, seared and as a tartare, splashed with citrus vinaigrette and lemon balm and accented with a ribbon of soy-truffle gelee.
Bill — who counts French chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire as his heroes — likes to buck the trends, either by being the first in the area to introduce little-known ingredients, such as black garlic or by integrating classic staples, such as foie gras, truffles and caviar. He likes to pair the humble (kale) with the luxurious (Kobe beef).
“They have some of the best food in Delaware,” says Rehoboth Beach chef/restaurateur Hari Cameron, a James Beard semifinalist. “It’s very elegant food that appeals to many different diners.”
The restaurant’s proximity to the Chesapeake and Delaware bays and the ocean comes into play. Entrees might include oysters, fluke and wild blue catfish — an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay — when they’re available. Produce is locally sourced when in season.
Living in the same building as the restaurant is both a convenience and a challenge for the couple. “The good news is that you’re here if anything happens and the bad news is that you’re here if anything happens,” Merry notes.
But in the end, Bill wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have the freedom to live life on my own terms,” he says, “and that’s pretty satisfying.”
The House of William & Merry: 1336 Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE; 302-234-2255; williamandmerry.com