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."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•8 large eggs
•4 ounces butter
•(melted and cooled with ice)
•1 pinch of salt
•2 cups flour
•2 cups milk
Beat eggs, then constantly whisk-in butter, then salt, then flour, then milk. Let mixture sit for four hours. Then, pour approximately 1/4 cup of batter into a traditional crepe pan or small non-stick pan and cook on high heat. Cook only on one side and then slide crepe onto a fabric tablecover to cool (If you smack the side of the pan on a hard surface, it will loosen the crepe, making it easier to slide off). Repeat until batter is finished.
Crepes can be frozen for future use or filled once cooled.
•3 pounds ricotta cheese
•1 teaspoon salt
•1 teaspoon black pepper
•1 tablespoon granulated garlic
•2 tablespoons fresh parsley
•1 cup (or 2 good handfuls)
•quality cheese (Locatelli, Romano, Parmigiana, etc.)
Mix all ingredients. Add filling to each crepe and gently roll to form the traditional manicotti "tube" shape. Then, place side-by-side on a baking tray or casserole dish with a layer of gravy (tomato sauce, see recipe) underneath and on top. Bake for approximately 15 minutes at 350 degrees until hot. Feel free to sprinkle parmigiana cheese on top before serving.
•2 ounces olive oil
•1 bulb of garlic, separated
•into cloves and cleaned
•2 1/2 40-ounces cans
•of Sam Marzano tomatoes
•1/4 teaspoon salt
•1/4 teaspoon pepper
•1 tablespoon basil
•1 teaspoon parsley
•1/2 teaspoon oregano
Put olive oil in a pan, tan the garlic, do not brown it, squeeze the tomatoes to break them up before adding to pan, add salt and all the spices. Bring it to a boil. Then it is ready for the crepes.
To make a smooth sauce push through a strainer then return tomatoes to sauce, or leave as is for chunky sauce.