Endless Summer 2019

Doing Mildred Proud: The Raffa Family Has Kept Her Namesake Restaurant Right on Track

By Marybeth Hagan

The Raffa family in front of Mildred’s (from left): Jenelle, Anthony, Gina, Sallee, Andy, Andrew and Christy Raffa.

Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant, a longtime favorite of residents and visitors, was born of an Italian immigrant and seamstress named Mildred Conascenta.

 

Mildred and her husband Charlie opened their place in 1952, shortly after they had a dining car hauled into Strathmere. That dining car, which was the original home of the Llanerch Diner in Upper Darby, Pa., still sits where it was placed by the Conascentas.

 

“It’s right there,” Andy Raffa says, as he points toward the arched doorway leading to a long, compact dining area that blends seamlessly into Mildred’s cheerful, blue and white interior.

 

Andy and his wife Sallee have owned Mildred’s for more than 20 years. The Raffas maintained a long and loving relationship with Mildred Conascenta and Mildred’s Restaurant.

 

Andy Raffa, 72, began working for Mildred and Charlie as a dishwasher and cleaner-upper when he was still in grammar school. He progressively moved from these positions, and doing other odd kitchen jobs, into food-prep work before becoming the restaurant’s cook. Mildred, who had no children, bestowed her cooking-without-recipes legacy on Raffa. Her protégé credits Mildred with teaching him the art of cooking and how to run a good restaurant.

 

Charlie and Mildred Conascenta.

 

“Mildred ran the show and called all the shots,” Raffa recalls. Back in the days when Mildred’s served breakfast, lunch and dinner, Mildred, Charlie and Andy began their workday at 4am. They stopped for breakfast at 7am and again later for lunch. “Mildred prepped [food items for that day] all morning,” Raffa says. “Then, she went home and got all dolled up and came back and had dinner with friends.” While dining, Mildred kept a watchful eye on restaurant operations. “Like I said, Mildred called the shots,” Raffa adds.

 

Sallee Raffa began working at Mildred’s as a 10-year-old when her parents were employed there. Her father, Vince Farina, was an employee for five years. Pat, Sallee’s mom, waitressed at Mildred’s for 48 years. Her mother still pops in to lend a hand, Sallee says.

 

“Mildred was good to everybody. She was so generous and so grateful,” Sallee reminisces.  “And, Mildred was very good to us over the years.”

 

Mildred’s Restaurant’s hands-on owners have been married for nearly 37 years.

 

Andy Raffa and the former Sallee Farina grew up blocks apart in Sea Isle City. Andy raced cars and played drums, Sallee recalls. “We could hear him on his drums from two blocks away,” she says with exasperation. “We didn’t like each other when Andy worked the entire [cooking] line in the kitchen and I waitressed” at Mildred’s, Sallee lets it be known.

 

That all changed in one night, thanks in part to Mildred.

 

At the end of each summer season, Mildred treated the entire restaurant crew, some 30 people, to a night out for dinner at Capriccio in Atlantic City’s Resorts Casino Hotel.  Everyone had dates for the evening except Andy and Sallee. So they decided to go together, Sallee says.

 

First came love … then came marriage.

 

While it was not planned that way, the Raffas’ wedding celebration wound up being at Mildred’s Restaurant. The wedding was scheduled to be held at the Ram’s Head Inn in Galloway Township on Dec. 12, 1982. But a major snowstorm limited travel for area residents. So, they opened up Mildred’s for some 20 immediate family members. The groom headed into the kitchen and resourcefully cooked a great meal with items from the freezer. The bride and her mother waitressed the reception and cleaned up afterward.

 

Mildred herself became such a part of the Raffa family that Andy and Sallee renovated their home in order to house and care for Mildred before she died in 1994. By then, “Mildred couldn’t see,” Andy says. “She was wheelchair-bound and had only one leg due to her diabetes.” Even the Raffa children, who were still young at the time, pitched in to help meet Mildred’s needs.

 

Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant.

 

While Sallee is the friendly, familiar, welcoming face of Mildred’s, Andy remains the man behind the scenes, although he recently changed his work routine.  Andy cut back his restaurant workday from 16 hours daily to some four or five hours a day to accommodate the health of his ailing heart. “I take eight pills in the morning and three at night,” he says. “But it works!”

Indeed, it does.

 

Andy still begins his workday at 4am. “I talk to my guys around 5am,” he says. Andy’s “guys” are Mildred’s meat, seafood and produce suppliers. They include: Esposito’s Meats in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market; “Sammy & Son,” as Andy dubs Samuels Seafood, also in South Philly; and B.F. Mazzeo produce in Northfield, N.J.

 

“Nothing comes out of a can here,” Sallee asserts.

 

She should know. Her workday often begins with food-prep work and managing the books in the morning. Then she heads home for a bit before returning to the restaurant around 2:30 or 3pm and works till 10 or 11pm.

 

Mildred’s is open for dinner from 4-9pm seven days a week during the summer season. Its menu features seafood, beef, and Italian specialties with homemade pasta, as well as homemade desserts. Patrons may bring their own bottles or purchase bottled wine from Cape May Winery at Mildred’s. The restaurant comfortably seats 170 people.

 

Like their parents, Sallee’s and Andy’s five children have all worked in the family’s restaurant every summer since they were youngsters. Daughters Christy and Gina “can work any line [in the kitchen],” says their dad. “They can broil, fry, sauté or do the pasta.” Son Anthony works six summer nights a week at Mildred’s until he returns to Europe, where he has played pro basketball in Italy and France. For the first time this year, son Andrew did not work the cooking line at Mildred’s because he now works with concrete as a member of the New Jersey Laborers Union, Local 172. Daughter Jenelle works as a server and closes up at night’s end. Cameron Williams, one of the Raffa’s six grandchildren, now labors on the cooking line in the kitchen and wherever else he is needed.

 

Other employees who worked as dishwashers in past years were participants in the nonprofit Kintock Group’s prisoner rehabilitation program, Sallee says. Workers came from the Bayside State Prison and the adjacent Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County, she adds. Former Kintock Group prisoners sometimes have returned to work at Mildred’s after being released from jail.

 

During a stroll through Mildred’s large and spotless kitchen, where her daughter Gina hustles about, Sallee pauses to introduce Mildred’s “backbone,” Eldemaria Gonzalez. Gonzalez has prepped food and strained the sauce for pasta daily for the past 18 years. “I love my boss and my work,” she says. “I’m glad to be here,” she adds, before lifting a large tray full of stuffed shrimp neatly lined up and ready for later broiling.

 

If the appetizing aromas coming from Mildred’s kitchen that afternoon are any indication, people dining there that evening will experience delightful taste sensations.

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