Category Archives: Italian

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: Gnocchi

Gnocchi are fast and easy to cook for dinner.  Recently, I saw a gnocchi recipe in the December 2013 Food Network magazine and made it along with one of my long-time favorite gnocchi recipes.  The Food Network recipe isn’t posted on its site yet, but all it is is baking a package of gnocchi with olive oil, kale and parmesan cheese (I used pecorino romano).  It’s really good.

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My favorite gnocchi recipe is gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce.

Gnocchi With Gorgonzola Sauce

1 package gnocchi

1 tablespoon butter

2 cups half and half or whipping cream with 1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons gorgonzola

Melt the butter in a pot.  Add the half and half.  Let it come to a boil.  Lower.  Add gorgonzola.  Mix and heat through until it becomes a creamy sauce.  Add to cooked gnocchi.  (Gnocchi cook fast, so you can start boiling the water for them while you make the sauce.)

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Two for Tuesday: San Gennaro Cannoli

Last year, I did a Two for Tuesday on San Gennaro cannoli and compared the cannoli from Ferrara and La Ferrara.  This year, I’m featuring cannoli from Caffe Palermo on Mulberry Street and Caffe Roma on Broome Street.  Caffe Palermo has a sign advertising the best cannoli, and it is also the sponsor of the cannoli man.

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I thought the cannoli cream and shell were good and had a hint of cinnamon.

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Caffe Roma’s cannoli cream was a little less ricotta-y than Caffe Palermo’s and the shell was a bit more cinnamon-y.

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My favorite cannoli in Little Italy would probably be a combination of Ferrara’s and La Ferrara’s.

OK, I know it’s two for Tuesday, but I’m going to throw in the frozen cannoli.  I had wanted to try this last year.  It’s a cannoli shell filled with soft serve vanilla, chocolate or swirl ice cream.  I got vanilla.  The soft serve isn’t the best quality, so I would opt for a real cannoli over this.

Dinner: La Rivista

Restaurant Row is usually not my first stop for restaurant choices, as it can be touristy with mediocre food.  However, sometimes I’m in the mood for a touristy experience.  La Rivista is a classic New York-style Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and waiters that create a romantic atmosphere.  There’s a piano player that plays old songs like Broadway favorites and Frank Sinatra tunes.  The night I was there, there was a large party who got in on the fun and sang to the music.  The food is solid Italian with dishes from the different regions of Italy.  It does lean more toward a Northern Italian menu.

With your meal, they give you parmesan cheese with balsamic vinegar.

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My friend’s appetizer was a special of the night.

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I got tomato and mozzarella salad.

tomatoes and mozzarella

For my entrée, I got a mushroom ravioli.

ravioli

My friend got shrimp risotto.

shrimp risotto

The desserts are classic New York Italian restaurant desserts. My friend got the cheesecake.

cheesecake

I got chocolate cake.

chocolate cake

Two for Tuesday: Spumoni

National Ice Cream Month is nearly over, so I’m featuring spumoni.  I have a memory of the best spumoni at Villabate Bakery in Brooklyn (before it became Villabate Alba).  Where better to try spumoni than at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  L&B is a pizzeria that sells spumoni and ices as well.  It’s still owned by the same family as the original owner.  There are outdoor tables outside, and you can walk up to the window and either order pizza or spumoni/ices.  On my visit, I got both.  I saw a lot of people with plastic cups of the signature spumoni with its distinctive green, brown and yellow color representing pistachio, chocolate and vanilla.  So I got one too while my friend got plain vanilla.  While it was a smooth treat, I prefer my spumoni with pink cherry in it.  Also, I prefer the lemon ice at L&B to the spumoni.

Spumoni L&B

The second spumoni I sampled was at the recent Giglio Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from an Uncle Louie G’s stand.  It had the same vanilla, chocolate and pistachio in yellow, brown and green.  However, it was smoother than L&B and had more flavor.  I really enjoyed this one.

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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