The Dilly Duck Shop — Russ & Phyllis Zappala
Hidden at the end of an unremarkable-looking strip mall off Route 7 in Norwalk lies a treasure that the locals have been enjoying since 2017. Customers are greeted by an orange façade and duck-adorned door handle underneath the Welcome sign. Inside, the cozy, wood-lined dining room envelopes with the warm embrace of New England hospitality. Food-themed vinyl records hang on the walls, and aromas from roast meats waft from the rotisserie. Behind the counter, Phyllis smiles and tells customers to make themselves at home. Welcome indeed, to The Dilly Duck Shop.
The silly-sounding name makes sense when broken into parts. The shop is a culinary craftsman’s space that produces dilly, an antiquated nod to items of high-quality (in this case, food!) The duck is an homage to the traditions of New England. Chef Russ Zappala believes the duck is emblematic of the region. “Ducks have a lot in common with New Englanders, I think. They’re practical birds, far from flamboyant, very steady, quite sturdy, and often quite proud to be loud.”
While the menu has evolved significantly since inception, the shop began with and continues to be anchored by an everyday New England staple — sandwiches. Sandwiches might seem common (and hardly unique to the region), but sandwiches have a long history in the northeast, with famous and beloved delis on every main street in New England, not to mention Connecticut’s claim to the largest sandwich franchise in the world, Subway, which was founded in Bridgeport.
However, with cafes, delis, and diners on seemingly every corner, it is important to stand out, and The Dilly Duck Shop’s offerings are anything but one-dimensional. They span cultures, from a classic Italian caprese to Middle Eastern falafel, without forgetting regional standards like grilled cheese and smoked salmon. The regulars, however, politely guide newcomers to the in-house rotisserie roasted beef and roasted pork sandwiches, which can turn a mere passerby into a daily patron. Even Zappala cannot pick between the two, see-sawing between both before acknowledging that the roast beef sandwich was the fan-favorite when they first opened.
Zappala knew he wanted his food to feature more than just sandwiches, so rather than typecast himself as a sandwich maker he opted for a restaurant name that was tied neither to sandwiches nor himself. The whimsically named shop became the umbrella under which he could explore food that his community enjoyed and simultaneously became somewhere the community felt belonged to them.
“That was always the intention, to have a menu and place that was for the community and took their preferences into consideration”. — Chef Zappala
Dedication to craft and the desire to be an active part of a community by nourishing them are traits Zappala developed in his youth. He grew up with artist parents and artisans like his seamstress grandmother, the kind of nonna who only needed to see and feel a dress to recreate it on her own. “From a young age, the people around me, my mother especially, showed me what exceptional craftmanship looked like,” Zappala says. Artistry aside, his large Italian American family maintained culinary standards that a Michelin starred restaurant would be proud of. He recounts how his family would give an aunt grief for not mincing the garlic finely enough or improperly seasoning a tomato sauce.
Zappala’s story, however, is not that of a young man who always knew he wanted to cook and intensely followed that passion. In college, he pursued music and hosted radio shows championing underground hip-hop, but soon found that music tastes (his included) were too ephemeral to be widely appreciated. He later became a sales manager at a paper company, but was creatively unfulfilled in corporate America. His memories of food as a community-builder and art form convinced him to give cooking a chance to be both his creative outlet and professional pursuit, so he began a year-long stint in the kitchen at La Cremailliere in Bedford, NY. Immersing himself in a restaurant environment, he learned the basics of French cooking and experienced the rush and pressure of the kitchen before continuing with formal training at the Culinary Institute of America, years of French culinary training at restaurants like La Panetiere (Rye, NY), and experience cooking on a grander scale for a centralized kitchen at Dean & Deluca.
Armed by his experiences with a skillset and desire to cook his own food, in 2017 he decided to go out on his own. For Zappala, that meant a return to Connecticut. He wanted to pay tribute to his proud Italian-American and New England roots, and to give back to the community in which he grew up. So, he returned to Norwalk and opened The Dilly Duck Shop just a couple miles from his first-ever culinary job at a nearby McDonald’s
Coming home and opening a restaurant sounds romantic, but the challenges of the industry can be anything but, especially in the beginning. Thankfully, Zappala had an ally in his mother, Phyllis. Russ Zappala may be the soul of the Dilly Duck Shop operation, but Phyllis Zappala is the heart. Her involvement with the shop was supposed to be temporary, but years later, the mother-son duo continue to work together, forming an essential part of the shop’s appeal. She knows most customers by name and recognizes almost all, even if they have not been there in a year. She is the first person customers see when they enter, and as she gives goodbye wishes for a great day, the last person they hear on the way out.
Phyllis refers to herself as a dinosaur, but it would be a challenge to find a sprightlier woman over 40 in Norwalk. She started as an artist and taught art locally before transitioning to a corporate career in Human Resources. “Someone had to pay the bills,” she jokes, but she did more than just pay the bills. At a time when there were very few women in senior positions, she excelled and served as a Senior Vice President before retiring from her corporate career. The traits that helped her succeed in HR helped her excel in her new calling at The Dilly Duck Shop as well, which is clearly on display when she engages with diners walking into the shop. Phyllis values each customer as a person, rather than merely as a transaction, taking a genuine interest in her diners’ lives. Even without her corporate title, she understands the importance of treating people like they matter, which is an indispensable quality in our increasingly remote and transactional society.
Russ and Phyllis produce hearty comfort food in a warm, welcoming environment to enrich and grow their Norwalk community, but for those outside Norwalk, it is worth the drive. Start with one of their incredible sandwiches, then sip on their signature lemon fizz with freshly squeezed lemons and homemade mint syrup (laced with ginger!) before getting an enormous cookie for the road.
If you find yourself looking at the menu and trying to decide what to get, try the roast pork breakfast sandwich. Indulge me in this brief editorial digression, so they may indulge you. I’m not grandstanding when I say that it’s the best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had. Nothing in New York, London, Singapore, Barcelona, or countless other food meccas have anything on it. Pork loin marinated with pineapple, amongst other things, is slowly cooked on the rotisserie, thinly sliced, and topped with crunchy, shaved fennel — a classic flavor combination — before being nestled between two beautifully toasted, locally baked rolls from Wave Hill Breads that have been generously slathered with honey butter. When you dig into the sandwich, either off the metal trays they serve it on, in the car on the way to work, or at home while on a Zoom call, you’ll lose yourself as you savor each bite.
If these sandwiches were sold in Eisenberg’s or Katz’s in the city, you would read about it in Eater or The Infatuation. After you treat yourself to their food, you will start finding excuses to spend more time in Norwalk with Russ and Phyllis Zappala at The Dilly Duck Shop.