Category Archives: History

Two Different Breads Baked in Old World Style Ovens in North Carolina

I should preface this post by saying I love bread from the “old country,” that is, bread made from good ingredients in a traditional manner. It’s very hard to find bread like this, at least Italian bread, anymore, as the neighborhood bakeries closed. In New York City, the bakeries still exist in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue. Italian bread is traditionally crusty. Some places like Whole Foods replicate Italian breads, but they just don’t hit the mark. Luckily, I got to have bread from some great bread bakeries around the NYC area before they closed. So I’m always on the lookout for good bread, and I have great respect for the tradition of bread baking.

In my North Carolina travels, I found two bread ovens, one constructed a long time ago and one constructed recently, but that both make traditional breads.

Le Phare des Alpes is a men’s club in Valdese, North Carolina, that was started as a mutual aid society by the Italian Waldensians who founded the town in 1893. A few years ago, I wrote an article about a traditional Waldensian sausage called soutisso for Primo magazine (scroll down the link for the recipe). I met some of the men at the men’s club during one of the bocce tournaments they host there. I was privy to a special treat that happens only once or twice a year, the baking of bread in the old oven. I feel honored to have gotten to try this bread since it is a traditional food done on rare occasions. The oven was made by Waldensians out of the local field rock. It is a gorgeous sight to see.

The bread is hard and crusty and was used in the way Italians use bread–for dipping in coffee, wine and soup.

Now, being Italian, I am familiar with Italian breads. I am not, however, familiar with Middle Eastern breads, and was introduced to the diamond-shaped samoon by a trip to Baghdad Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. The shop sells other types of bread as well and is open all week except Monday.

When I walked in and saw the oven a few years ago, I knew I had found something special.

–Dina Di Maio

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Valdese, A North Carolina Mountain Town Settled by Italian Immigrants, Celebrates 125 Years This Year

Valdese, North Carolina, is a town in the western part of North Carolina with green valley pastures and rolling hills. In 1893, 125 years ago, it was settled by a group of Italians from the Alps in the region of Italy known as the Piedmont.

They were called Waldensians because they practiced the Waldensian faith. Persecuted for their religion for centuries, in the late 19th century, they saw a population boom and branched out to live elsewhere. A group founded Valdese and created a lasting legacy. Valdese is a good day trip from most of North Carolina’s major cities. On August 10-11, 2018, the city celebrates its 125th anniversary with the Waldensian Festival. Here are some sights to see in Valdese:

  1. Village Park Mural–A beautifully painted mural in an outdoor park on Main Street detailing the history of the Waldensians from their start to their founding of Valdese.  
  2. Waldensian Heritage Museum on Rodoret Street–The museum is a must-stop to learn more of the day-to-day life of the Waldensian people with examples of their traditional dress as well as a replica of a Waldensian home. The museum also has a really nice gift shop with books and gifts from and about Italy and the Waldensians. 
  3. Waldensian Presbyterian Church–In 1895, the Waldensian Church became part of the Presbyterian Church. During the festival, the church sponsors a traditional Waldensian meal. 
  4. Waldensian Trail of Faith–Here, you can tour the replica of a Waldensian village in the Alps. 
  5. From This Day Forward–an outdoor drama from the Old Colony Players about the Waldensians of Valdese. It celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 
  6. Waldensian Heritage Winery–The winery was founded in 1930 by Waldensians where they use traditional methods to make wine.

    me at a wedding at the winery

  7. Bocce courts–Bocce is a favorite pastime of the locals, as is evidenced by the bocce courts off Main Street. 
  8. Le Phare des Alpes–The Valdese Men’s Club started as a mutual aid society created by the Waldensians. Today, it hosts the North Carolina Bocce Tournament. During the festival, you can check out the bocce tournament and also sample some handmade soutisso, the local Waldensian sausage that I wrote about for Primo magazine. (Scroll down the page for the recipe.) 
  9. 100 Main–A restaurant on Main Street that serves soutisso a few different ways, but also the traditional way with green beans and potatoes. 
  10. Local street signs, architecture and cemetery–Waldensian culture is evident in the names of local streets, in architecture of older buildings and houses, and in the names of those buried in the local cemetery. 

–Dina Di Maio

Villa Tronco: Historic Italian (and Oldest) Restaurant in South Carolina

My new book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, debunks myths about Italian food in the United States. One of those myths is that returning GIs from World War II brought pizza back from Italy to America and that’s how pizza became popular in America. DEBUNKED. Pizza was already here–brought by the Italian immigrants of 100 years ago who opened Italian restaurants around the country wherever they settled. Villa Tronco is one such restaurant, opened in 1940, which predates WWII, and it claims to have introduced pizza to South Carolina. (It is also the oldest operating restaurant in South Carolina.)

The family originates from Naples and Sicily, according to owner Joe Roche. The Carnaggio family first moved to Columbia in 1910 and opened a fruit store. From Philadelphia, James Tronco was stationed nearby during World War I. He met the daughter, Sadie, and they married, eventually opening what would later become Villa Tronco.

Current owner and granddaughter of the original owner, Carmella Roche, details the racial discrimination her grandparents endured in an article in the Cola Daily, such as having to sit at the back of the bus and having to use non-white bathrooms. (In my book, I also discuss racial discrimination that Italians endured in the United States.)

Recently, I had the pleasure of dining there and meeting one of the owners. Villa Tronco is located in a historic firehouse in downtown Columbia, South Carolina.

And you can still see the exposed brick in one of the dining rooms.

The menu details the history of the restaurant.

Of course, while visiting I ordered the pizza. The pizza here is a square pie cut into square slices. It is a thin crust pie with a crunch. The tomato sauce is fresh and tomatoey–not herby. There’s a good amount of cheese.

For dinner, I ordered one of the specials, a pork with creamy polenta dish. I really enjoyed this dish. The pork was cooked perfectly, through but not dry, and the creamy polenta was a delicious accompaniment.

My friend got the eggplant parmigiana and enjoyed it.

For dessert, we got Carmella’s famous cheesecake. It is excellent.

And a generous serving of some tricolored spumoni ice cream. Yum!

–Dina Di Maio

11 Stops on a Tour of Italian and Italian-American Landmarks in Raleigh, North Carolina

11 Stops on a Tour of Italian and Italian-American Landmarks in Raleigh, North Carolina

by Dina Di Maio

Historically, there was no great migration of Italians to North Carolina like there were to some other states in the South like Louisiana or Alabama. So you don’t find much Italian history in the state. However, there are some stops in Raleigh if you want to find a little bit of Italy and Italian Americana.

  1. Carousel at Pullen Park—The carousel at Pullen Park is a Dentzel, the premier carousel maker of the early 20th century. Salvatore “Cherni” Cernigliaro, who immigrated to the United States in 1902 from Palermo, Sicily, at 23 years old, was a carpenter who made and finished furniture in Italy. When he came to Philadelphia, his first job was carving carousel animals. He started working for Dentzel when his prior company folded and stayed with Dentzel until the company closed. He then trained others how to hand-carve carousel animals. Cernigliaro, the chief carver of the carousel animals, strayed from tradition and created his own flair, adding unique carving embellishments to the animals and carving other nontraditional animals like rabbits, cats, and ostriches. The carousel animals at Pullen Park were carved by Cernigliaro. With 52 animals, this menagerie carousel is a historical gem right here in the capital city. Purchased by the city in 1915, it was restored in the 1970s and is still in working order today. For more information: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/raleigh/pul.htm.   
  2. Immigrant Gate II, 1997 sculpture by Greensboro-based sculptor Jim Gallucci—Located in Millbrook Exchange Park in North Raleigh, this sculpture honors the artist’s parents who were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s. For more information: https://www.raleighnc.gov/parks/content/Arts/Articles/MunicipalCollection.htmlGallucci also did the Light Towers sculpture in City Plaza, a 55-foot steel sculpture with LED lights.
  3. Sir Walter Raleigh statue at the Raleigh Convention Center on Salisbury Street—The city of Raleigh commissioned this 12-foot bronze statue in 1975. The sculptor was Bruno Lucchesi, of Pietrasanta, Italy, one of the world’s most famous sculptors. Apparently, there was a bit of controversy as Lucchesi took creative license with Raleigh’s collar and instead of depicting him in the 17th-century ruff collar, he chose a more open style. However, the city conceded and the statue was dedicated in 1976. For more information: http://nancymcfarlane.com/sir-walter-raleigh-statue/.  
  4. George Washington statue at the State Capitol downtown–The original sculpture, made of Carrara marble from Italy and sculpted by Antonio Canova (recommended by Thomas Jefferson) and Giuseppe Cerrachi, was dedicated in 1821. It was damaged in a fire, and the one at the capital today is a duplicate, also made of Carrara marble, sculpted in 1970 by Venetian sculptor, Romano Vio. The model for the sculpture is currently on display, for the first time outside of Italy, at the Frick Collection in New York City.   For more information: http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/407/.
  5. Fragment of the George Washington statue at the City of Raleigh Museum downtown on Fayetteville Street. For more information: https://cityofraleighmuseum.org
  6. Fragments and plaster replica of the George Washington statue at the North Carolina Museum of History in downtown Raleigh.  For more information: https://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/
  7. Collections of Roman art and Italian Renaissance art in the permanent collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Blue Ridge Road. The collection includes Giotto’s Peruzzi Altarpiece. For more information: http://ncartmuseum.org/
  8. 235 Fayetteville Street, the site of Antonio Leo Dughi’s grocery store–Dughi was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States in 1875 and settled in Raleigh, opening a grocery store that sold wine, oysters and ice cream. The cornerstone of his shop and his family grave is at historic Oakwood Cemetery. For more information: http://www.waltermagazine.com/art_and_culture/shop-local/.  
  9. Altar and cornerstone at the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral on Western Boulevard–The altar is made of Carrara marble from Italy.   The cornerstone, made from Tuscan stone, was blessed by Pope Francis.  For more information: http://www.sacredheartcathedral.org/masstimeshnj.
  10. Jim Valvano statue at Reynolds Coliseum—In 2016, NC State honored four coaches, including Jim Valvano, with bronze likenesses. Valvano’s statue stands outside Reynolds Coliseum. For more information:   http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/college/acc/nc-state/article102285262.html.
  11. Sports memorabilia of Italian Americans in sports at the North Carolina Museum of History in downtown Raleigh, such as Jim Valvano,  Sam Esposito,  basketball all-American Sam Ranzino, basketball all-American and 1959 ACC Player of the Year Lou Pucillo   and Francis Rogallo, father of the sport of hang gliding.  

The Italian Pantry: Vinegar

Vinegar is another item that is essential to an Italian. It goes hand in hand, often, with olive oil, as in “olive oil and vinegar.” Contrary to popular belief, the vinegar of choice for most Italians is red wine vinegar, not balsamic. In fact, balsamic is not exactly a vinegar, but more of a concentrated and aged grape must. Grape must is an ancient form of sweetener used in Italy and the Mediterranean areas. True balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy, which is in the Emilia-Romagna region in North-Central Italy. The majority of Italians who settled the United States were from Southern Italy, as I mention in my book, Authentic Italian, and the foodways of Italians here follow Southern Italian traditions. That is why balsamic vinegar is fairly new to the United States, although it is not a new product, but it was a regional one in Italy. Having said that, grape must was also used as a sweetener in Southern Italy. My family did not use balsamic vinegar, only red wine vinegar. In addition, the Waldensian Heritage Winery in Valdese, North Carolina, makes a red wine vinegar in addition to its wines, so I’m thinking that even though the Waldensians who settled the tiny town in the 1890s were from Northern Italy, they also used red wine vinegar traditionally.

What is it used for? The most popular use for vinegar is on salad. Italians dress their salad with olive oil, vinegar and salt. Simple and delicious!

–Dina Di Maio

My Book, Authentic Italian, Is Now Available

Authentic Italian

Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

by Dina M. Di Maio

Available from Amazon.com

Pizza. Spaghetti and meatballs. Are these beloved foods Italian or American?

Italy declares pizza from Naples the only true pizza, but what about New York, New Haven, and Chicago pizza? The media says spaghetti and meatballs isn’t found in Italy, but it exists around the globe. Worldwide, people regard pizza and spaghetti and meatballs as Italian. Why? Because the Italian immigrants to the United States brought their foodways with them 100 years ago and created successful food-related businesses. But a new message is emerging–that the only real Italian food comes from the contemporary Italian mainland. However, this ideology negatively affects Italian Americans, who still face discrimination that pervades the culture–from movies and TV to religion, academia, the workplace, and every aspect of their existence.

In Authentic Italian, Italian-American food writer Dina M. Di Maio explores the history and food contributions of Italian immigrants in the United States and beyond. With thorough research and evidence, Di Maio proves the classic dishes like pizza and spaghetti and meatballs so beloved by the world are, indeed, Italian. Much more than a food history, Authentic Italian packs a sociopolitical punch and shows that the Italian-American people made Italian food what it is today. They and their food are real, true, and authentic Italian.

Little Italy Isn’t Dead: Monument to First Italian-American Settler

Periodically, there’s an article about how Little Italy is dead or dying. Yes, it’s more of a tourist destination and less of a neighborhood where Italian people live. There are still some Italians there, and there are Italian-American-owned businesses there. A recent article in the New York Times made me want to write a series on Little Italy Isn’t Dead and feature some of the businesses there.

In front of the Italian American Museum on Mulberry and Grand Streets is a monument dedicated to the first Italian settler to the United States, Peter Caesar Alberti, who came on June 2, 1635.

–Dina Di Maio