Deana Sasdelli wrote in seeking the recipe to her "favorite restaurant meal" - the broiled stuffed shrimp at Mildred's Strathmere Restaurant.
But getting the recipe proved less than easy. While the shrimp used for the popular dish haven't changed in 60 years, it's not a simple question of copying down single-serve instructions, says head chef Christy Raffa. A third-generation restaurateur of sorts, Raffa learned all the recipes from her father, Andrew, who learned from Mildred Conascenta herself before that.
Each had to learn the hard way.
"Everything I know today came from him. I didn't go to school," Christy Raffa says of her father. "I know every recipe that is in this restaurant that nobody knows about. But I had to sit with him and go over everything to get it from his head. He would tell me, 'You have to eye it up,' but I said 'Dad, I can't, the restaurant won't run the same.' I had to physically go through everything with him."
Mildred may not have been her grandmother, but she was always like family, Christy Raffa says. The former owner cared for Christy's father like a son and taught him what he knows of running a restaurant, including that you have to take personal responsibility for the high-quality consistency of meals. So it made sense the Raffa family took in "Nana Mildred" after Conascenta lost her legs in a kitchen accident and continued to care for her until she died.
"She took care of my dad and was like the mom he never had before. She was such a part of our lives for such a long time," Raffa says. "She was a great person, but very strict in her ways."
Of course, with Mildred gone, the Raffa family had to pull together even tighter to get the work done. From the beginning, this has been a family that works together. Christy's parents met while working together at the restaurant. Sally Raffa was waiting tables with her mom, Patricia Farina, who just retired last year, and Andrew was the chef.
Growing up, Christy Raffa remembers sleeping on milk crates in the kitchen when she was a little girl, and using them as step stools to reach the sink so she could help dry dishes. Being close to her dad, Christy liked to follow him around the kitchen, picking up what she could from watching him work. He trained her two brothers, Andrew and Anthony, to help out on the kitchen line, and her sisters, Jenelle and Gina, are servers, helping mom run the front of the house.
"We've basically worked here our whole lives. We're a very hard-working family. My dad always taught us, you can't just go out and hire someone to do this," Raffa says, of taking over her dad's position of 45 years. She starts taking deliveries at 3 a.m., making sure every delivery is right, with top-grade ingredients. Then it's time to start the seven-hour gravy, then prepare all the meals at dinner. In season, Christy Raffa doesn't leave till 11 p.m.
"You just don't come down here at 4 in the afternoon and think you're going to start serving dinners. You have to be here all day and all night."
Christy is careful to point out she's not alone running the restaurant. Her siblings also are very involved, and although they joke their mom never can retire, Christy suspects Gina will eventually take over the dining room operations.
"All my kids can work any station in the house," mom Sally brags. "I don't have to worry about (retiring)."
Christy is the oddball, choosing to take over from her dad in the kitchen rather than stay in the dining room with the girls. This is the first year she quit her job as an emergency room tech at AtlantiCare to work full time at Mildred's, so her dad can get out and play golf with his friends.
"I think it's dynamite," Andrew Raffa said of his daughter taking over. "I still come down in the morning to start the gravy. They still need supervision sometimes. It's like being the coach of a basketball team, you never really retire when you still like doing something. My roots are still in the restaurant."
Jenelle and Gina both have children, but Christy Raffa says she doesn't have time to think about starting a family of her own now, she's still focused on seamlessly carrying on her father's legacy. It's not easy, sometimes it's overwhelming, but running a family restaurant by the shore is what Christy believes she was meant to do, and that is very satisfying.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Broiled Stuffed Shrimp
•1 teaspoon of green
•pepper, chopped fine
•1 teaspoon of red bell pepper, chopped fine
•1 cup of mayonnaise
•1 can of jumbo lump crabmeat
•3 U15 all-white shrimp, cleaned and deveined
•Sprinkle of paprika
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place both peppers in a bowl, add egg and a splash of Worcestershire sauce and mix altogether. Add mayonnaise into the bowl and make sure it's well-blended; the mix will be off-white once ready. Empty the can of crabmeat into another bowl, then add half of the mix to it. Fold the crabmeat in a circular position, mixing slowly so the meat doesn't break apart.
Remove the shell from the shrimp, leaving the tail on. Spray a sheet pan or sizzle pan with non-stick cooking spray and lay out the three shrimp. Use a tablespoon to form the crabmeat mixture so it won't fall off the shrimp and place it on top. Add some melted butter on top of each shrimp and sprinkle some paprika over the top to give the shrimp color.
Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes. Squeeze a lemon wedge over the shrimp and serve with melted butter.