Category Archives: History

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

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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.

Two for Tuesday: King Cake and Paczki

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Happy Mardi Gras!  Growing up, we always called today Fat Tuesday.  We would eat a lot today before Lent started tomorrow.  An Italian tradition is to make very large meatballs with raisins; however, my family didn’t like the raisins so they didn’t use them.  I can get on board with the Irish tradition of pancakes or the Polish tradition of jelly doughnuts, or paczki.  I got these from the grocery store.  They were a tad stale with cheap-flavored jelly in them, but I’m sure real ones are the bomb.

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I wanted to try my hand at making a New Orleans king cake.  I read a lot of recipes beforehand, and every one is a bit different.  So I mixed and matched and came up with the following recipe.

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King Cake

For the cake:

2 packages active dry yeast (1/4 oz. each)

1/2 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)

1/2 cup sugar

1 stick butter, softened

1/2 cup warm milk (110-115 degrees F)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

3 1/2 cups flour (may need more)

For the filling:

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cup butter, softened

For the icing:

1 box powdered sugar

5-6 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons light cream

green, purple and gold colored sugars (I bought these ready made at Target.)

For the cake, dissolve yeast in warm water.  Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, eggs, salt, orange peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and flour.  Beat on low speed in a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook until a dough forms.  You may have to add more flour until you see the dough is no longer sticking to the bottom of the bowl.  The dough should not be too sticky.

Knead dough on a floured surface until you have a nice dough ball.  Put dough in a bowl greased with olive oil.  Cover and let rise in a warm place.  (I wrapped it in a blanket and put it near the heat in my bedroom.)  This may take a few hours.  It should double in size.

After it doubles, punch it down and roll it into a rectangle.  I made my rectangle about 18 x 8 but you could make it longer lengthwise so that you have more flexibility to roll it into different shapes (like the Haydel’s long rectangular shape).

Spread the filling on with a spatula and leave about 1 inch around the edges.  Roll it up and then pinch to seal the edges.  Use some water to do this.  It’s a bit tricky but really make sure to do it or the filling will seep out while baking.

Put it on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and let it double in size again.

Bake at 375 degrees F on a baking sheet for 10 minutes and then 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.  Cool completely.  When cool, lift up and put plastic baby somewhere in the bottom of the cake.  (You can’t bake the baby in or it might melt.)  Drizzle with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars on top.

Two for Tuesday: Food Americana Books

A Century of Restaurants by Rick Browne

and

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

A Century of Restaurants by Rick Browne was released this past October 2013.  Browne is known for his Barbecue America series, and what a fun endeavor he created for himself with this latest book.  He traveled around the United States, dining at historic restaurants.  What could be better than that?  Included is a write-up on each restaurant as well as photos of the decor and food and a recipe from the restaurant.

To judge the authenticity of this book, I looked at the New York section to see what he chose.  A lot of my favorites were in the bunch.  His choices include restaurants I’ve been to:  Barbetta, Delmonico’s, Ferrara, Fraunces Tavern, Katz’s Deli, Keens Steakhouse, Old Homestead Steakhouse and  Peter Luger Steakhouse.  It is no mistake that so many steakhouses make the list.  These classic restaurants are some of the best in the city.  In fact, four of my favorite meals are on the list–Barbetta, Delmonico’s, Keens and Peter Luger.  He even included recipes for standout items like Delmonico’s lobster Newburg, Ferrara’s cannoli, Keens’s mutton chop, the Old Homestead’s toast tower, and Peter Luger’s fried potatoes.

While I’ve traveled to many states and have eaten at many local favorites, I have been to only a handful of restaurants in the rest of the book:    Columbia in Ybor City, FL; The Berghoff in Chicago; La Fonda in Santa Fe, NM; Union Oyster House in Boston, MA and Old Salem Tavern in Winston-Salem, NC.

I’ve learned about many new ones I want to try:  The Griswold Inn in Essex, CT, looks like an adorable old-time seaside tavern.  The lobster potpie looks amazing too.  The huge circle of ham at the Log Inn in Haubstadt, IN, looks great.  the huge circle of ham at Breitbach’s Country Dining looks great, but I’d have to eat half to save room for the crazy-good-looking raspberry pie.  I’d love to have an old hot brown at The Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, KY.  The creamy Mornay sauce looks divine.  OK, my favorite recipe is the blueberry cream pie from The Publick House in Sturbridge, MA.    The maraschino cherry-studded banana fritters at Stagecoach Inn in Salado, TX, look delish too.  The brandy ice at the Wilmot Stage Stop in Wilmot, WI, is ice cream, brandy and creme de cacao.  I’m all about that!

Seriously, Rick, if you need a dining companion for a second book, I’m in!

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews was also released this past October 2013.  Colman Andrews is a food writer known for founding Saveur magazine.  His book is divided into chapters based on food categories like dairy products or condiments.  Within each category is an alphabetical listing of foods that come from or are produced within the United States like cheese straws or kolaches.  There’s a short blurb about the food’s origin and who makes the food.  Some of the foods are depicted in colored drawings.  The book showcases 250 foods.

I was disappointed with this book for a few reasons.  First, I would have preferred a photograph of the food/shop/market rather than the drawing.  Many of the foods do not have a drawing, so there winds up being a lot of white space that isn’t aesthetically pleasing.  I do like the drawings; they are great and add to the feeling of nostalgia to the book.  But for a book like this that also serves as a guide book with contemporary information on each food, I’d prefer photos.  However, the main reason I don’t like the book is that it doesn’t list where you can get the products.  (There is an index at the back of the book, but I’m talking about listing it on the page that discusses the food.)  I would have preferred if it gave information on the origins of the food but then listed purveyors of each one in an organized and easy-to-use format.  Also, it would have been nicer to have a more comprehensive listing of American foods because many regional favorites are not included in the book (for example, Carolina BBQ or New Jersey taylor ham/pork roll).  In general, I think books of this type lend themselves to a lot of subjectivity on the part of the author because the author chooses what types of foods/states/regions/ethnic foods to include.

Dinner: Delmonico’s

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I have wanted to dine at Delmonico’s for a very long time, and I can’t believe it took me this long!  It is such a huge part of New York history and also culinary history, as it set restaurant standards and created time-tested dishes.

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The original Delmonico’s opened in 1827 and had many locations and different owners since then.  It also involves a bit of trademark law.  The Delmonico family tried to keep rights in their last name, but a court ruled that when their last restaurant closed in 1923, the name went into the public domain.  So there were other owners who opened restaurants with the name Delmonico’s.  While the current restaurant isn’t in the lineage of the original restaurant, it serves the dishes Delmonico’s is famous for.

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Delmonico’s is historically famous for its grandiose dinners like those for Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.  It is also famous for being the first restaurant to let diners order a la carte.  It originated some dishes that have become classics like the Delmonico steak, Delmonico potatoes, Lobster Newburg, baked Alaska, chicken a la king, eggs benedict and Manhattan clam chowder.

On the night of my visit, CNN was there with a camera crew filming about the history of the restaurant and its famous baked Alaska.

As it is white truffle season, there was a white truffle special on the menu–lobster risotto with white truffles.  The appetizer version was $45.  I decided to splurge since I can’t recall having eaten white truffles before.

white truffles

My friend ordered the bacon appetizer that came with octopus.  I tasted it too, and it was delicious.

delmonico bacon

For my entree, I was deciding between lobster Newburg and Delmonico steak, and I opted for the famous steak.  Boy, am I glad I did.  You can’t tell from this picture, but this steak was cooked to perfection, slightly crispy char on the outside and pink on the inside.

delmonico steak

The 40-day aged bone-in rib eye was even better, if that can be.  This was an exceptional steak.

delmonicos steak

For sides, we got creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes.  Both were very good.  In fact, I think the creamed spinach is my favorite of all the steakhouses I’ve been to in the city.

delmonicos creamed spinach

delmonicos mashed potatoes

Since I saw the baked Alaska being showcased for the CNN program,  I knew I had to try one.  Generally, I’m not a meringue person, but of course, I love ice cream.  I didn’t know what to expect, but the meringue wound up being my favorite part.  The meringue has this light crispiness to it

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but it’s soft and frothy on the inside.  I loved it.  I could eat that alone.  But with ice cream and a nice crust, it was the perfect dessert.

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Dinner: Keens Steakhouse

Things are great at Keens Steakhouse.  It won a James Beard “America’s Classics” award this year, and since then, business has really been booming.  Not that the 128-year-old steakhouse needed an award–it’s obviously doing something right.  And that’s steak…atmosphere…service…and dessert.

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Speaking of atmosphere, the first thing(s) you notice when you step down the steps, besides the dark wood, is/are the thousands of pipes, yes, pipes, hanging all over the ceiling.

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The history is that travelers would check their pipe in at their favorite inn because the pipes were too fragile to be carried.  They are hard clay churchwarden pipes, and famous names like Babe Ruth, Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Einstein had pipes at Keens.  Right by the door, there’s a case, including an autographed pipe from Michael Jackson and other present-day celebrities.

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I didn’t know about this history before eating at Keens, so it was an interesting, fun history to learn.

My dinner at Keens was a belated birthday dinner with a friend.  I was instantly pleased that along with a bread basket and butter, we got veggies and spinach dip for a somewhat clean-eating snack.  (Hey, we needed some celery before this meal.)

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For appetizers, we got littleneck clams on the half shell.

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Tomatoes and onion salad with blue stilton cheese.  I like that there was just a sprinkling of cheese on the tomatoes and onion.  Just the right amount of flavor.

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Thick-cut smoked bacon.  My friend ordered this.  I’m not a bacon fan, but I decided to take a taste.  Oh wow, this was so smoky and flavorful.  This is definitely not your average bacon of bacon and eggs….

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Keens is known for its mutton chop, but I wanted steak.  I know I’m not a big steak eater, but lately, I’ve been enjoying it.  So I got the steamed Maine lobster and filet mignon.  The lobster was perfect and delicious.  The filet mignon was cooked to my liking.  It was very good–not as tender as the one I recently had at the Old Homestead, but still excellent.

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My friend got the prime rib of beef, king’s cut.

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For sides, we got mashed Yukon gold potatoes and creamed spinach.  I like mashed potatoes without garlic, so I was very happy with these.  I also liked the creamed spinach best of all I’ve had recently.

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We were pretty full after this meal, but our waiter talked us into a dessert.  Yes, the butterscotch sundae, with housemade butterscotch sauce made with real scotch.  They brought it with a birthday candle for me.

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OK, I usually find steakhouse desserts boring, like the standard cheesecake, chocolate cake, key lime pie…but this sundae takes the cake…er, ice cream.

This butterscotch sauce was sooooo good, we both want to come back and get our own.  I wanted to get a close-up so you could see it better.

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Yes, there is a reason Keens has been in business for more than a century, and that is because it serves classic food that is delicious.

Two for Tuesday: Brooklyn Pizza

I finally made it out to Brooklyn to try Totonno’s in Coney Island and L&B Spumoni Gardens’ pizza in Bensonhurst.  Pizza is a controversial topic, I realize.  My grandmother talked about wood-fired pizza from Naples.  My mother grew up on coal-fired pizza.  As my family worked in the pizza business and owned a pizzeria, I’m pretty critical of pizza.  Among aficionados, Totonno’s has a history and is known as some of the best pizza.

Totonno's
On our visit, we didn’t have to wait on line.  There was one table available.  There are no frills here.  You sit; they bring you paper plates and plastic cups.  You have your choice of canned or bottled soda and water.  Service is rushed and not friendly.  Because of the demand and lack of space, you may have to share a table with other patrons, as we did.  We ordered the large plain cheese pie, which is a steep price at $19.50.

Totonno's pizza
The three elements of pizza are crust, sauce and cheese.  With a coal-fired oven, one would expect the blackened bottom and a certain flavor.  Sally’s Apizza in New Haven has the perfect coal-fired crust.  Totonno’s crust didn’t have that blackened bottom, and the dough was lackluster.  The tomato sauce was bland–just a tomato taste.  The cheese was also pretty flavorless.  I had really wanted to love this place because of its history, but I felt it was lacking in taste.  I really don’t think it’s worth a trip out to Coney Island just for this pizza.

L&B
L&B Spumoni Gardens is a subway stop and short walk away from Totonno’s.  Here, the specialty of the house are Sicilian-style pies.  For those who don’t know, Sicilian style pies are square pies that are more doughy.  My mom says that when she was young, Sicilian pies came with tomato and onion, but that is not how they are served today.  The pie at L&B is good, but where’s the cheese?  I understand the sauce is on top of the cheese, but I don’t think there’s enough cheese.  It’s unfortunate because the sauce is very good, slightly sweet and with oregano.  With more cheese, this would be one hell of a Sicilian pie.

L&B Spumoni Gardens pizza