by Collin Hall
Trish Asselta, the owner of Duffinetti’s and daughter of the original owners, has fought hard to keep Duffinetti’s open.
Though Duffinetti’s Italian Restaurant in Wildwood is as close to a household name as a place gets in Cape May County, it is a near-miracle that it exists today at all. After the original Duffinetti’s closed in 2005, owner Trish Asselta thought that the family business had finally turned in its hat after 57 years of service.
When Trish decided to close Duffinetti’s original location on New Jersey Avenue in Wildwood Crest, her plan was to leave the restaurant industry for good. But Duffinetti’s just celebrated a rowdy 2021 New Year’s Eve on Pacific Avenue; the closure in 2005 is obviously not the end of the story.
“I had a nice little life for those ten years. I traveled, I had almost ten years to myself,” she said of the time between the original location’s closing and the opening of Duffinetti’s on Pacific Avenue. When Trish sold Duffinetti’s in 2005, she hoped that her life could move on from an industry that is as unforgiving as it is rewarding.
Yet those ten years of retirement were haunted by the specter of a property sale gone-wrong. The buyer of the original Duffinetti’s on New Jersey Avenue deceived Trish when he purchased the property, a reality she said was common during the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. The new owner purchased the location but never paid her more than a down payment.
“I had the choice to foreclose -at this point he had already knocked the whole restaurant down- and take back the property or try to help him out. Because the market had gone so bad, I felt really bad for him at the time. So, I decided to become a Mother Teresa instead of a businessperson.” The financial fallout from that decision eventually led Trish, a whole decade later, to re-open Duffinetti’s on a new street, in a new town, in a new decade.
Trish found herself in the middle of a vastly changed industry when she stepped back into the world of restaurateuring. “I had to start it from scratch,” she said as she shook her head at the pure chaos of the time. “Do my old customers even remember me? So much of it was brand new to me; I didn’t know how to use these new computer systems, how to advertise online, how to market myself, how to do any of the things that are normal in the industry now… I had to figure out all of that.”
Her daughter Allison was instrumental in helping Trish understand these new systems and encouraged her to break through the many obstacles that came with starting over.
Duffinetti’s revival began with meager steps. Trish remembers passing out tentative menus and canned pasta sauces at the Wildwood farmer’s market just to get the word out: “Little by little, people started to talk about Duffinetti’s returning.”
And of course, success did not come all at once. The new location on 4600 Pacific came with its own quirks that left Trish scratching her head. “I acquired a liquor license, which I knew nothing about because I was in the Crest before. I inherited a dance floor, a stage… I could cook, but I had no idea how to do those other parts.”
The world changed dramatically between 2005 and 2015, Trish said. “Being out of the restaurant business for the number of years that I was, I was faced with what was going in the world. I didn’t know the signs to not hire drug abusers, it was hard to get good kids,” she said.
But with Allison’s help and with the kind of grit that only decades of experience can buy, the pieces fell into place. “Little by little, I continued to interview all kinds of entertainers, and now we have entertainment seven days a week. My bar, which used to have three or four people at it, is full by 5,” she said.
Trish remembers sweeping water on rainy days out of a cramped outdoor alley that led to the bathroom in one of her parents’ original restaurants. Today, she carries on the legacy of Duffy and Mary Asselta with her venture into the unknown.
Duffy and Mary moved from Vineland to Wildwood per the recommendation of an aunt; they were completely unfamiliar with the shore town and opened the “Garden State Restaurant” in an old rooming house on Pacific Avenue. Per Trish’s own admission, her parents “knew nothing of the restaurant business. They knew nothing, just a leap of faith.”
Garden State Restaurant gave way to Asselta’s Italian Villa, which eventually gave way to the original Duffinetti’s in Wildwood Crest. Even considering its ten-year absence, Duffinetti’s is now among the longest-standing family-owned restaurants in the county.
When Trish was a kid, she marveled at the crowds that would flood Pacific Avenue in Wildwood. The restaurant business has changed, but so too has the town that has for so long hosted Duffinetti’s. Trish said, “When I was young, Pacific Avenue was the place to be. At 10 or 11 at night, the streets were absolutely filled with people going to the nightclubs downtown. You’d see women in high heels, people out shopping.”
Those flooded Wildwood nights have faded to a flicker, but the atmosphere at Duffinetti’s has remained vibrant. If for just a night, guests at Duffinetti’s are whisked back to a time of glowing neon, crowded streets, and a different age on the Jersey Shore.
4600 Pacific Ave, Wildwood