The classic s’more recipe is basic: two graham crackers, a piece of chocolate, and a gooey toasted marshmallow.
Duane Dinio’s versions are anything but.
As the owner and chef of S’mores Amore in downtown Norfolk, Dinio has transformed the beloved campfire treat with flavors such as banana, caramel, coconut, hazelnut, mango, peanut butter, strawberries and even ube, a purple yam originally from his mother’s native Philippines.
Each all-homemade concoction includes a graham cracker cookie crust, a chocolate brownie or buttery vanilla blondie and a gourmet marshmallow topping that is “fired” with a small blow torch right before customers’ eyes.
“You watch it turn brown, and at the same time you can smell it and see the smoke,” Dinio says. “My goal is to re-create that old magic in totally surprising ways and also to help keep people’s spirits high. I love seeing their faces light up.”
After two years as a popular kiosk at Selden Market, S’mores Amore is expanding into its own storefront. Dinio, a 38-year-old Virginia Beach resident, has added cookie dough bites and ice cream selections and hopes to have product shipping capabilities before the holidays.
S’mores Amore, founded in July 2018, offers permanent menu items such as The Original (graham crust, brownie and vanilla marshmallow) and the Golden (blondie, sweetened cream cheese and marshmallow), plus monthly and limited-time flavors.
July’s American Pie concoction, for example, featured a cinnamon golden blondie with cream cheese, diced honeycrisp apples and brown sugar marshmallow with vanilla, butter and cinnamon. Last winter’s Lump of Coal was all black and rich with chocolate hazelnut flavors.
A recent Game On creation celebrated the return of pro sports amidst the COVID-19 pandemic by mixing brownies, kettle-cooked potato chips, crushed pretzels, butterscotch chips and chocolate caramel-flavored marshmallow.
“They’re always experimenting and coming up with amazing combinations,” says Careyann Weinberg, Selden Market retail director. “They’ve become such an iconic part of the market, because people get a dessert like they’ve never had before and also such a fun experience.”
Born in Baltimore, Dinio spent much of his childhood in Virginia Beach and graduated from Ocean Lakes High School. He fell in love with cooking and especially baking at a young age, helping his mom whip up everything from Filipino dishes to chocolate chip cookies.
Dinio majored in psychology at Old Dominion University but decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of Virginia in Norfolk after a post-college job at a gourmet popcorn store. He graduated in 2010 and worked as a cook for schools, businesses and retirement communities, all the while dreaming of launching his own company one day.
As he visited bakeries, Dinio realized that none focused on s’mores, which he had first discovered on his childhood camping and fishing trips to Chincoteague and Solomons Islands in Maryland. The iconic treats date back to at least early 20th-century America, getting a mention in a 1920s cookbook on recipes with campfire marshmallows.
“I thought, ‘What if people could experience s’mores without buying camping gear or getting bitten by mosquitoes or any of those bad parts of camping?’” he says. “It could be nostalgic but also new. I wanted to do something that people had never seen before, and I wanted it to be interactive so they would really remember it.”
Dinio runs S’mores Amore with his wife, Kristine, who serves customers in the store and oversees social media advertising, and two other employees; baking is done in Selden Market’s community kitchen. While Dinio watches food trends for ideas, inspiration often strikes him randomly or when he’s eating something that he suddenly wonders about for a recipe.
S’mores Amore has provided grab-and-go treats to Wegmans Food Market in Virginia Beach for about a year, and Dinio also collaborates with local breweries on an ABC (Another Boozy Creation) Series of alcohol-infused desserts.
One favorite limited-edition blondie was the MarchMallow with Pride, which promoted Pride Month with rainbow-colored rice crisps and sprinkles. A portion of sales went to The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.
Overall, the most popular product has been the Ooh Bae Baybee! Ube Coconut S’mores Blondie, a flavor combination frequently used in Filipino desserts.
“I never expected that,” Dinio says, “but it’s proof to me that people like to try new things.”
In the future, Dinio would like to open more locations in Hampton Roads and perhaps outside Virginia.
Weinberg wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen: “As soon as customers walk by and see what’s happening there,” she says, “they seem to find themselves in line.”