Press

From the Press of Atlantic City

By STEVEN V. CRONIN, Staff Writer

Legacy recipes: At Mildred's in Strathmere, Raffa family serve family recipes in a family business

A father, his daughter and trove of recipes at family business Mildred's in Strathmere

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sometimes, old family recipes start with old family friends.

So when Christy Raffa sets out to make manicotti, she thinks of her dad and his relationship with Charlie and Mildred Conascenta - the folks who first opened Mildred's Strathmere Res-taurant nearly six decades ago.

Andrew Raffa went to work at the restaurant in 1965, when he was 18 and became so beloved of the Conascenta's that they shared their recipes with him.

"They loved me, and I loved them. It was like I was adopted by them - they were like my mother and father," said the elder Raffa, who now owns the restaurant.

Raffa's life has been entwined with the restaurant since he was about

6 years old, when the Conascenta's transported a dining car from the mainland over to Sea Isle City and on to Strathmere.

"They brought it in on a trailer. They were lucky to get across the bridge, they were, like, rubbing the edges," Andrew Raffa recalled. "I know the guy who used to open the bridge. He said they weren't going to let them bring it into town."

The way Raffa remembers it, his family was the first the Conascentas met after they got their new restaurant set on its cinder block base at the corner of Ocean Drive and Prescott Avenue.

Raffa also seemed destined to work in the restaurant business. While in grammar school he was cooking at Mercy Hospital in Sea Isle City, reporting to work by 5 a.m.

Raffa started on the ground floor at Mildred's, washing dishes, cleaning up and doing other jobs in the kitchen. Soon those chores segued into prepping and then, eventually cooking at the restaurant.

"I just built myself up and up," he recalled.

Working at Mildred's - and with Mildred Conascenta - was an education in how to run a restaurant, Raffa said.

"She taught me everything I know - about cooking and the business, too," he said. "She would sit out front, and when she needed turnovers, she would go to a table and tell the people it was time to get up because she needed the table - that's tough to do. You have to have a lot of nerve."

Working in the restaurant also allowed Raffa to learn Conascenta's recipes, because it's not like she had them written down anywhere.

"She was a good cook - the top. But it was tough getting (the recipes) out of her. I had to work beside her, just see what she did all the time. She never wanted to give up anything," he said.

In the beginning, Raffa would work at Mildred's during the summer and at a restaurant in Florida during the winters. But as the Conascentas got older, they did not want him going away from the business for months at a time.

Raffa took over the business about 17 years ago. By this time a father with a family of five young children, Raffa had no trouble finding help running the restaurant, which had grown over the years to seat more than 170.

"We were raised working in the restaurant. We've been in here since grade school," said Christy Raffa, who has memories of making her own meals of chicken fingers and french fries and catching naps on milk crates in the kitchen.

Being in the kitchen so much, the Raffa children couldn't help but pick up their father's work ethic. He's known for arriving at the restaurant - which stops serving at about 9 p.m., well before dawn to start work. This is a necessity in a restaurant that serves a tomato sauce that takes eight to nine hours to prepare.

One morning, though, Andrew Raffa arrived at the restaurant and discovered he had company.

"It was about four years ago. He was at the point where he was tired and he had kidney stones. So one day, I was down there at 3:30 a.m. He said, 'What are you doing here Chris?' I said, 'I'm here to work.' So, I stood beside him, and he taught me how to cook everything," said Christy Raffa.

At 26, the younger Raffa sees her career following the same path as her father's - a childhood and teen years spent in kitchens leading to a life running a restaurant. With her dad cutting back his involvement in the restaurant - he now takes some time off after getting things going in the kitchen well before the sun comes up - Christy Raffa is becoming more and more responsible for operations.

But before she could take over the reins, Christy Raffa had to overcome the same problem her dad had so many years ago.

"All the recipes we use are the old recipes, and trust me my dad didn't want to give any of his recipes away," Christy Raffa said. And like Mildred Conascenta before him, Andrew Raffa never saw the need to write any of the recipes for the restaurant's signature dishes down.

"He would say everything was in his head. I said, 'I can't go by what is in you head,' but eventually I learned and now everything is in my head, too. When my sister wants to make relish, she has to ask me about the recipe," Christy Raffa said.

For Christy Raffa, keeping the restaurant operating the same way it has been for 60 years is more than a job. It's a way of maintaining a legacy.

"I would like to see the business keep going. My dad's worked here for 45 years. I would like to see it keep going in the family. I'd like my dad to eventually leave it to me and my sisters and we'll pass it on from our generation," she said.

But when Christy Raffa does pass the restaurant on to another generation, chances are she won't be passing on many new recipes. She sees no need to deviate too far from the dishes that have been favorites for decades.

"There are a few things that I do to try to change things up, but I really don't need to add anything on the menu. It's already a very large menu, and business has been so consistent. I really don't need to change anything."


From the Sea Isle Times, July 2012 edition

Here's the Dish: With Executive Chefs Christy and Gina Raffa

 Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant, located on Ocean Drive between Sea Isle City and Ocean City, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. For 45 years, chef and owner Andy Raffa ran the kitchen at Mildred’s, much to the delight of his many loyal customers who enjoyed his critically acclaimed cuisine week after week. Andy’s two daughters, Christy, 26, and Gina, 29, now are at the helm in the kitchen. They continue to maintain the level of excellence that has kept patrons returning to the eatery since it was opened by Charles and Mildred Conascenta in 1952.

 

Gina, who studied at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia, and Christy, a graduate of Florida International University, are Sea Isle City natives who began working behind the scenes at Mildred’s when they were in grammar school (as did siblings Anthony, 22, a Coastal Carolina basketball star;  Andrew, 24; and Jenelle, 38).

 

“Our dad taught us everything we know,” said the young chefs, who answered our questionnaire together. “It was wonderful growing up at Mildred’s.”

 

Their father still opens the kitchen each day at 4 a.m. However, Christy and Gina have been “running the line” for the past several years. Today, along with their mom, Sallee, the Raffas epitomize a family business. Sallee’s mother, Pat Farina, recently retired after waitressing at Mildred’s for 46 years, leaving behind a devoted customer base that greatly appreciated her fine service. The Raffas also have many other devoted employees who are longtime members of the Mildred’s family, including John Upshaw, who runs the restaurant’s pasta station. “John has been a big asset to our restaurant for over a decade,” says Christy. “He is very skilled, and he’s great at what he does.”

 

The menu is filled with many selections, and it can be difficult to choose what to order. But don’t worry, the staff is very knowledgeable, and it can suggest a variety of options that will be sure to please. Mildred’s homemade pasta, prime rib, Veal Andrew, Crab Imperial, soft-shell crabs and many Italian specialties are very popular – but everything they serve is worth a taste. After dinner, don’t forget to cap off your meal with one of Mildred’s homemade desserts, such as the lemon meringue pie or Italian cream cake.

 

Mildred’s is open seven days a week during the summer, and reservations are highly recommended. Bring your own bottle, or choose from one of Mildred’s fine wines from the Cape May County Winery. There also is a children’s menu, so you can enjoy dinner with your entire family.


From Philadelphia Magazine's Best of the Shore 2010:

By Lauren McCutcheon and Michael Callahan

MEAT ’N’ POTATOES Because if Marie Gledhill, Philly Mag receptionist for 22 years and Shore aficionado for more than that, says Mildred’s is her favorite spot for classic American steak and mashed with gravy — “They have good seafood, too”—we’re not gonna disagree. And neither are you.  Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant, owned and operated by Sallee & Andy Raffa, proudly serves the finest seafood, prime rib, Italian specialties, homemade pasta, and desserts.


In 1952, Mildred & Charlie Conascenta never imagined the lasting tradition they were creating the day they hauled the little diner from Philadelphia to Strathmere.  Still intact, the original Llanerch Diner (pronounced Lan-ark) is the core of the restaurant.
Over the years additions have been added, with the last one aptly named, Charlie’s Room.  For six decades the restaurant has been in the same location and has only changed hands once.  It’s even hard to say “changed hands” because Andy Raffa has been in the kitchen for five decades!


Upon arriving on Ludlam Island, Mildred & Charlie became good friends with Andy’s parents so it was only natural that Andy started his working career at a very young age, washing dishes.  Over the years Andy worked his way up to Executive Chef and running the “back of the house.” Knowing the kitchen was in good hands, Mildred & Charlie could finally sit and enjoy dinner with the loyal customers they cooked for over the years.


Trained by Chef Andy, aka “Dad,” daughter Christie is now Executive Chef and takes over where Dad leaves off.  Chef Andy can still be found every morning at 4 a.m. making homemade sauces, pasta, soups, Crab Imperial, Deviled Crab, and many more wonderful entrees and desserts.  Deviled Crab is almost impossible to find on seashore menus today and has been replaced with what is now called a “Crab Cake.”  But, at Mildred’s you can still enjoy the same old-time traditional recipe of crabmeat in a creamy “deviled” base, and then deep fried.  If you’re looking for more of the “crab cake” style, try the Crab Imperial, 100% jumbo lump crabmeat, broiled to perfection.


Loyalty also includes the waitresses, many serving for decades.  One special waitress, Sallee, caught the eye of the Chef, now married they are parents to five children who also work in the business.  Sallee runs the “front of the house" and cheerfully greets those loyal customers that she now calls “friends and family.”  Working alongside Sallee and Andy are daughters Jenelle, long time waitress, Gina, waitress and hostess, Chef Christie, sons Andrew, bus person and all around "does it all" guy, and Anthony, currently a college student and standout basketball player.


Never imagining when Mildred & Charlie hauled their little diner, The Llanarch, to a place called Strathmere that it would become a “landmark” for great seashore dining.


From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Like every Shore visit, this summer's trip was filled with its share of mishap meals -- including one disappointing Italian dinner at which the waiter, noting our displeasure, backed off an earlier boast that our pasta trio was homemade: "I didn't say it was made in our home," he hedged. "It's made in our purveyors' homes."

 

Little wonder, then, that my sharp 8-year-old, Arthur, would quiz the grandmotherly waitress at Mildred's in Strathmere the following night when considering the "homemade" ravioli: "Do you mean you make it in your house?" It might be a surprise to anyone rolling past this well-aged white clapboard roadhouse across from the trailer park in Strathmere, but yes, in fact, pasta is made on-site daily here, much as it was when Mildred Conascenta first moved the old Llanerch Diner from Upper Darby to this dune-fringed spit of island in 1952. What is stunning, though, is the rare continuity Mildred's has maintained under the Raffa family. Chef Andy Raffa, to whom Conascenta gave the restaurant when she died, has worked in the kitchen here for 45 of his 62 years and still arrives daily at 4 a.m. to butcher, prep the deviled crabs, and slow-simmer the tomato gravy and sauces. Wife Sallee, daughter of a 42-year Mildred's waitress, has been there four decades herself.
All five of their kids work at the restaurant, too, including daughter Christie, 24, who now runs the kitchen line at night.

 

There's nothing trendy at all about this old standby, which has the humble look of a tidy diner. But much like Busch's, its soon-to-be-history kindred spirit at the southern end of this barrier island, Mildred's offers rare proof that a traditional menu -- priced fairly with entrées in the mid-$20s -- can still be timeless when cooked with care and top- notch ingredients. The two-inch- thick prime rib served in a pool of dark jus here was as broad as a racket and as tender as prime- grade beef butter. The crab imperial was a deceptively filling crock of creamy lump-crab indulgence. The lightly pounded veal Parmesan was worthy of the best South Philly competition. But so was that homemade pasta, too, the superfine threads of toothy spaghetti that get a deep-red stripe of Raffa's soulful gravy, a rich ragu patiently steeped with pork bones and nearly a half-century of practiced craft.

They've got it down. In a summer that saw fewer new restaurants make their mark, Mildred's proved to be one tasty classic that more than filled the void.