By Donald Wittkowski
In 1990, a young man named Bujar Daku fled his native Albania to escape poverty and the oppressive Communist government that ruled the European country at that time.
Attracted by New York City’s array of restaurants, hotels and huge population, the business-minded Daku thought of emigrating to the Big Apple, but ended up at the Jersey Shore instead after spending some time as a chef in Philadelphia.
Now 45 years old, Daku has made a remarkable climb from his Albanian beginnings to become one of Cape May County’s most influential restaurateurs. His La Fontana and Fratelli’s restaurant brands can be found in Strathmere, Sea Isle City and Avalon. He also owns a La Fontana restaurant in Philadelphia.
Daku is planning to add to his collection of restaurants by opening a new place in Avalon at 32nd Street and Dune Drive in the summer of 2018.
Giving a sneak preview, he said the new restaurant will offer upscale Italian cuisine similar to his La Fontana locations, but promises to feature an entirely new concept.
As he prepares to enlarge his footprint at the seashore, Daku explained that his expansion plans are guided by a simple principle: “If you’re in the ocean and you don’t swim, what happens?” he said.
Daku’s La Fontana fine-dining restaurants are complemented by his Fratelli’s wood-fired pizzerias in Sea Isle and Strathmere. Fratelli’s in Sea Isle made its grand opening in April at the corner of 50th Street and Landis Avenue, across the street from Daku’s La Fontana Coast restaurant on Landis Avenue.
Trimmed in Mediterranean-style décor, Fratelli’s falls somewhere in between “fine dining and casual dining,” Daku noted.
The centerpiece of Fratelli’s is a $40,000 domed oven imported from Italy, made of volcanic ash and capable of cooking pizzas in just three minutes.
“It cooks pizzas crisp on both the top and bottom,” Daku said. “A lot of other ovens will cook pizzas on the top but not the bottom or on the bottom but not the top.”
Fratelli’s features an array of gourmet pizzas made from what Daku described as a special, healthier type of flour. It also has grilled foods, salads and homemade gelato.
Daku pronounced Fratelli’s first summer in Sea Isle a success. He stressed that the profitability of the seashore’s restaurant industry strongly depends on good weather during the peak summer tourism season.
“It’s going good,” he said. “We have a lot of customers. Everybody loves it.”
“Fratelli,” an Italian word, translates to “brothers” in English. For Daku’s restaurants, the family-inspired name is certainly appropriate. His brother, wife, son, daughter, sister-in-law and other relatives help him run the eateries.
After leaving Albania, his first foray in the restaurant business in the United States began in 1991, when he served as a chef at La Veranda in Philadelphia.
While at the Jersey Shore several years later, Daku and the now-deceased Fausto Berardi decided to become business partners in La Fontana Del Mare in Strathmere in 1998. His La Fontana Coast in Sea Isle and La Vecchia Fontana in Avalon would follow as he became more successful. Translated from Italian to English, “La Fontana” means “the fountain.”
Although Daku concentrates on his group of restaurants at the seashore and in Philadelphia, he noted he also has a restaurant and hotel in Albania, where his parents still live.
When asked whether he might return to Albania to live one day, he emphasized that the Jersey Shore is his home now.
“This is my family environment,” he said, referring to having both his home and business at the shore. “That’s what I like.”