Ten years ago Trish Asselta thought that she was out of the restaurant business for good. She had sold her family’s long time staple restaurant, Duffinetti’s, which would promptly be torn down to make room for condos.
For Asselta, restaurant work was all she knew, having been raised in the biz from the age of 8, filling up water pitchers for servers more than twice her age.
Her family’s eateries — Garden State Restaurant, Asselta’s Italian Villa and Pacific Grill — all came and went. But it was Duffinetti’s, which her parents purchased in the mid-1960s, that stayed in her family for 40 years.
“It was always family oriented,” says Asselta of the original Duffinetti’s that was located in the Crest. “When you walked into our door, you were our family. You were greeted like it’s Thanksgiving dinner and we hadn’t seen you in a year.”
Back to work
The decade after Asselta said ciao to her family’s restaurant, she essentially retired. She moved to Florida, did some traveling and took time to care for her mother and disabled son. She continued to keep in touch with customers she missed, even inviting some to visit her in the Sunshine State.
But something kept gnawing at her. She had her fill of R & R and longed to return to the restaurant biz.
That’s when opportunity came a-knockin’.
Asselta had heard of a spot that was available right in the heart of Wildwood. Without hesitation, she grabbed it — and opened the latest incarnation of Duffinetti’s on Pacific Avenue in 2015.
Finding a worthy chef for her latest venture, however, didn’t come quite as swiftly.
Good help is hard to find
Since opening in Wildwood, Asselta had a most difficult time finding a good and — here’s the key word — reliable chef. So for the first four years of business, she did it herself, cooking the hearty peasant dishes that she learned mostly from her beloved late mother Mary.
“It was simple, easy food that my mom cooked. We didn’t have money (growing up), so she sauteed this and sauteed that,” Asselta says. “My mother could have an empty refrigerator, 10 people could walk in (the house) and she’d make the best meal you’d ever have.”
But running, managing and cooking for a restaurant is a lot of work for one person. In fact, it’d enough to break just about anyone. Except Asselta, that is.
She decided to quietly spread the word among friends and other restaurant owners that she was looking for a chef. A fellow business owner had someone bartending for him who was actually a cook. A really good cook. Like, seriously legit.
And since August, Stephen Quici has been the force behind the line in the kitchen at Duffinetti’s.
The best was yet to come
Like Asselta, the South Philly-born, culinary-school educated Quici was in the food business most of his life. He, too, had a few of his own restaurants — some that worked out, some that didn’t. He had also worked at Philadelphia’s Union League and spent several years at Aramark before making a decision with his wife to spend the summer of 2018 in Wildwood.
Though he swore he’d never be a chef again — “I was beat up” — he still went to Duffinetti’s to speak to Asselta and her colleague about the chef’s position.
“She (Trish) said (to her head waiter), ‘How long you think this one is going to last? Two weeks?’” says Quici about Asselta’s first impression of interviewing yet another chef. “‘I give him a week and a half,’ he said. Right in front of me!”
If Quici’s being honest, his first impression had him thinking he might not last very long at Duffinetti’s either.
“I didn’t like anything I saw.”
Despite that, Quici knew Asselta was still doing a good business and he was aware of the long and deep history of Duffinetti’s. He felt as if she needed him.
Even though she was trepidatious about schooling another cook who might just wind up leaving in a few weeks, Asselta hired Quici. “And it was the best thing I ever did in my life,” she says. “He cooks 10 times faster than I can. He took over making my soups, my sauces, my desserts … and it tastes like mine — if not better.”
Immediately Quici reorganized the kitchen to make it more open and airy as well as much more efficient; brought in some fresher, healthier products; and streamlined the original menu while holding fast to Asselta’s mom’s recipes and adding new, more innovative dishes.
“The old Duffinetti’s was good peasant food. He’s elevated it,” Asselta says.
Quici is just as complimentary toward Asselta.
“She has brought the passion of food back in to my life,” he says.
A saving grace
The two have learned to trust each other so much that for the first time ever, Asselta kept Duffinetti’s open throughout the entire recent off-season. More monumental than that, it was also the first time she felt comfortable leaving her restaurant in the hands of an employee while she wintered in Florida. Asselta and Quici have become so close that he’s been known to phone her up to four times a day — sometimes to chat about anything but Duffinetti’s.
Asselta has been a calming presence for Quici, who admits that he can “make some noise, sometimes not in a great way.”
The plan for Quici is to establish Duffinetti’s as a real destination spot and he has his sight set on making it “better and better” for at least the next 20 years — which is how long he hopes to be cooking there. Asselta would have no qualms with that.
“We communicate … He respects me and I respect him,” she says of this relationship brought together by kismet.
“I met her and doors opened up for me, just when she thought her doors were closing,” Quici adds somewhat poetically. “It’s a perfect fit. I don’t know who’s saving who.”