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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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The Harbor View’s Sun Sets

Irene Gibbons and Fred Ascoli in the tackle shop they built shortly before Harbor View.

By Collin Hall

Fred Ascoli Turned a Decaying Marina Into an Institution

LOWER TOWNSHIP — “The place was closed up, beat up, condemned,” owner Fred Ascoli says of the marina that eventually became the site of the famous Harbor View restaurant, which sits tall on the artificial strip of land between Diamond Beach and Cape May.

But after 20 years, Ascoli says it’s time to move on, and the Harbor View is transitioning into Port, a new restaurant by the owners of Taco Caballito in Cape May.

When Ascoli took over, the spit of land that was once the abandoned McNeil’s Marina needed a lot of work to stand up to the task of docking the fisherman’s two party boats, Miss Chris II and Lady Chris. For years, the marina sat aging. But it was what he could afford in the mid-1990s, and anyway, it was a place to start.

Trash and debris filled McNeil’s Marina before Fred Ascoli turned it into a thriving business.

“I was just a working guy, I didn’t have a ton of money,” he said. “My family didn’t have a lot of money.” Ascoli said he has worked 14 hours a day every day of the year except Christmas, for his entire life. In his younger years, this meant long 8- to 12-hour fishing expeditions on the boats, and lots of preparation and cleanup before and after each journey.

“I was really good at finding old shipwrecks. We made special trips to find blackish, codfish, sea bass,” he said.

Ascoli wanted to base his party boat business out of his then-newly acquired property. But formidable opponents stood before him: mounds of trash, crumbling buildings and faulty boat slips. He spent many months on his hands and knees, alongside a small team, fixing up the place.

Ascoli at work on the decaying marina as he restored it to working order.

The fruit of his effort was a small property where guests could comfortably board his party boats on the newly refreshed 85-by-24-foot slips.

“My party boat business was very, very successful,” he said. “People would come from Allentown just to come fishing for the day. The first thing they would do is arrive at 6 a.m. in the morning and walk up the street to Captain’s Cove to get breakfast because they were driving half the night to get here.”

Ascoli wanted that breakfast business. If he served coffee and a quick bite to eat and sold tackle, he could keep his customers from the temptations of the outside world.

“So I started a tackle shop, installed new pilings, new windows, new siding on the main building that still stood,” he said. “I put slips along Mill Creek, and fixed up the fuel docks.”

An excavator tearing down one of the many decaying buildings at McNeil’s Marina.

He makes it sound easy, but an extensive photo book chronicling the transformation of the property tells a different story.

The restaurant, which opened in May 2004, came shortly after the tackle shop. Overhead images from the restaurant’s initial construction show that Fred’s ambition burgeoned into something much larger than just a party boat spot. This wasn’t just going to be a place for fishermen, but for anybody looking to have a good time on the bay.

Ascoli’s partner, Irene Gibbons, said that the restaurant’s first days were so busy that it makes her head spin to imagine it. She and her partner put together a small team of servers, chefs, busboys and hostesses. The restaurant’s soft opening that May was meant to be a test run so the new staff could build synergy and work out any kinks.

Harbor View restaurant as it took life in 2003.

“Everything was paper — the kitchen help had to read everything from the servers, whose handwriting might not be legible to the kitchen yet,” she said. “There was so much to figure out, nobody had worked with each other before.”

But even that first day — not advertised — was so busy that she said it was a miracle it all worked out.

Harbor View quickly became known for an entree that was just becoming mainstream in America: sushi. It is the first place in Cape May County to offer both sushi and alcohol.

Ascoli said, “I didn’t want to be another place on the water that served crabs. Back in those days, steamed crabs and pitchers of beer were huge. Why not sushi? Sushi was up and coming at the time. I wanted to be a unique place.”

Another, earlier view of Harbor View restaurant as it was under construction in 2003.

Harbor View’s sushi wasn’t some trick of the hat; it was made by a genuine sushi chef from Myanmar, known then as Burma. Ko made sushi in the cafeteria at Hershey Medical Center. When he wanted to expand his sushi business, he took his team of four sushi chefs from the center to Harbor View.

“Ko was with us the whole time,” Ascoli said. “He helped us win ‘Best sushi’ from Best of South Jersey for the past three years.”

To this day, the marina owes a debt to the USS Utica, a retired, scrapped passenger ferry that once sailed the Hudson River. The hull from that ship buffers the edge of the marina, protecting it from waves and high tide.

“Before the ship was at McNeil’s Marina, it was brought into the Wildwood yacht basin and turned into a nightclub,” Ascoli said. “It used to say ‘DANCING’ in black on the side of the boat. It became an abandoned eyesore in Wildwood.

Ground-up pieces of the USS Utica sit underneath the red crane.

“The city told the owner it was time to go. It wouldn’t fit under the bridge. One day I was running the Miss Chris going out fishing and I saw a tugboat towing it towards the bridge. I picked up the radio and called (the late) Captain Jim Cicchitti, who owned Starlight Fleet. I asked him — where are they going with that ferry?”

Turns out, it was placed on the property Ascoli would eventually own, as a buffer against the waves that sometimes batter the site. He realized when he was building his restaurant that the water would be a mighty obstacle. He took every precaution to waterproof his buildings and slips, never using cheap materials that might one day collapse.

“I bought that piece of property with the intention it would be a party boat spot,” Ascoli said. “I had to build a restaurant because I had to feed my customers. I never in a million years thought it would turn out to be as big as it did.”

Irene said she is excited to be on her own schedule, not the restaurant’s.

“Thanks everyone for being with us along this great journey,” she said.

The Harbor View Marina, which docked many boats until its final days of operation under the Harbor View name.
Content Marketing Coordinator / Reporter

Collin Hall grew up in Cape May County and works as a content manager for Do The Shore, as well as a reporter. He currently lives in Villas.

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