By Collin Hall
The Malusa family, starting three generations ago with founders Frances Malusa and the late Antonio Malusa, has held Nino’s Family Restaurant together through the physical collapse of one of its major locations and a global pandemic. But through every hardship, Frances said that the family finds joy in what they do.
Nino’s, now located solely in Cape May Court House, opened in 1994, and Frances says that the family is incredibly thankful that the community has rallied around the restaurant’s homemade meals and large portions, and around the family itself.
“We raised our family here, we have our grandchildren here. Many of our patrons remember when the kids were running around here, and now they’re fully grown and work here… When we moved here, the community embraced us and made it their place too. They’ve kept us going through thick and thin,” she said.
Anthony, who is head chef at Nino’s, Jennifer, who is France’s daughter-in-law, and Frances herself huddled around a table for an interview an hour or so before Nino’s was scheduled to open on a windy February afternoon. All three of them work at the restaurant in different capacities, and behind them, a mural depicts Grado, Italy, where Antonio Malusa originally called home. And above them, a photo of Anotonio and Frances hangs and depicts the couple embracing each other decades ago. Frances wiped a tear from her eye, and said “I think about him every day.”
Indeed, Antonio’s Italian heritage inspires nearly every aspect of the restaurant. Frances said Nino’s has become an ‘institution’ in Cape May Court House, and that the traditional Italian eats play a large role in that. But guests also come for the atmosphere, she said, and for the friends and family that eat here together.
Though Nino’s is now best known for its Court House location, Nino’s was once famous in North Wildwood. The North Wildwood location, on Walnut Avenue, was incredibly successful for the family. But success was not enough to keep it afloat; when Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey coastline, Nino’s was one of its many victims. “When Sandy hit, we got three feet of water in the restaurant,” Frances said.
Anthony, who is head chef at the restaurant, said that the family was not able to rebuild because they never received an insurance payout. “They took so long in arbitration that in the meantime the building went rotten. It had to be torn down, nothing was left,” he said.
Despite great hardship, including the economic strain of COVID-19, staffing shortages, rising prices across the food industry, and the destruction wrought by Sandy, Jennifer stressed that the family remains committed to serving their famous food in generous portions.
Through the challenges that come with owning a restaurant, family has been a key asset to Nino’s success. Jennifer said, “It has been a real struggle. But luckily, our family members travel from different states just to help us out, to work as much as possible to keep this place open.” These challenges have been very real, and at times, felt existential for the business. Anthony, who is most familiar with the kitchen out of everyone in his family, said “I’m paying almost double for everything, and we can’t shrink the dish and raise the price.”
Anthony has remained head chef at Nino’s for many years; he fully embraces working with family, with all the good and bad that brings. He loves the direct positive impact he can have on guests through his food. He said, “I love to put smiles on people’s places through my food. That’s what keeps me going.”
He said that the most popular dish at the restaurant is “Anthony’s Choice,” a dish made with shrimp, scallop, and crab meat, with spinach and tomatoes. “It’s a white wine scampi dish over pasta,” he said. But his favorite dish overall is his “Veal and Shrimp Carmela,” named after his sister Dana, which is sauteed with olive oil, garlic, mushrooms, and tomatoes in a light, creamy rosé sauce and baked with mozzarella cheese.
Despite the aforementioned hardships, Jennifer said that the future looks bright for this slice of the Jersey shore, and for Nino’s. She pointed to an increasing year-round population because of the pandemic: “More and more people are moving to the shore,” she said.
And no matter the difficulties, the smiles that the family brings to thousands give them peace. Jennifer said, “We have little kids who want to come here for their birthday. That feels good, it’s an honor to hear that.”