Grotto Pizza fans no longer have to travel to Milford or New Castle County to get their favorite pizza or pasta dish.

With the snip of an oversized pair of scissors, Grotto Pizza owner Dominic Pulieri formally opened the chain's first Kent County restaurant since he founded the company more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant is in the former Atlantic Books store at 1159 N. DuPont Highway, and features a large dining room, sports bar, patio and game room. Construction began in September 2012, and the company held a soft opening May 15.

"Grotto is a total Delaware icon," Gov. Jack Markell said at a reception after the ribbon cutting. "Everybody loves Grotto's."

Grotto Pizza opened in 1960 at Rehoboth Beach after Pulieri moved there from his native Wilkes-Barre, Pa. But things didn't go well at first; for a while it seemed he couldn't give his pizzas away.

"Back then, pizza wasn't known in Rehoboth," he recalled. "I had my sister out on the sidewalk handing out samples, and the people wouldn't take them. It just wasn't popular."

From that inauspicious beginning, however, Grotto has grown and prospered. The chain now boasts 18 restaurants in the First State, three in Pennsylvania and one in Ocean City, Md. It provides more than 1,500 full- and part-time jobs throughout Delaware, including 90 positions at the new Dover restaurant.

Pulieri, who at age 71 remains deeply involved in day-to-day operations of the business, was working May 15 when the Dover store first opened its doors. Some of the first customers were students from Delaware State University, directly across Route 13.

"The biggest thing I heard all day was, 'It's about time,'" he said.

A Grotto Pizza on Route 13 is a magnet for people all over the county who know of the restaurant's reputation, Pulieri said, but who don't want to travel to Rehoboth or northern New Castle County to enjoy its menu of pizzas, sandwiches, pasta, appetizers, salads and subs.

The restaurant's first 30 days, the period when people tend to form their opinions about the food and the service, were extremely important and went very smoothly.

"I'm very happy about how things have been going," he said.

Pulieri added he plans to expand his business further in the state and hopes to open a restaurant in Middletown.