Category Archives: Local

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


How to Save Your Favorite NYC Restaurants & Food Businesses

This month, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation blog posted an article, The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments.  The article outlines actions we can take as consumers to help support our locally owned restaurants and food businesses.  The #1 thing we can do is to think about where we eat and shop.  Make an effort to patronize businesses deeply rooted in the community.  By doing this, we help ensure their survival in an ever-increasing-rent climate.

The article also outlines what businesses can do to help themselves, as well as what policy  makers can do.  It’s very well written with great suggestions.

Blue Hill Yogurt

Blue Hill recently started selling vegetable yogurts in four flavors:  carrot, tomato, beet and butternut squash.


They are available at various locations in the city.  I got mine at Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center.  They had only carrot, tomato and beet.


The carrot and tomato are subtle;


the beet reminds me of cold borscht.


I love them.  My favorite is the tomato, followed by carrot, but they are all good.  I want to try the butternut squash too.

Under your lid, you can see the name of the happy cow whose milk made your yogurt!  Luna’s milk made my carrot yogurt.  And all the milk in my yogurts came from different cows.


For those of you who don’t know Blue Hill, it began as a restaurant in the Village that served food grown/farmed at Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture up the Hudson.  I have never been, but I want to go.

Tune in tomorrow for the winners of the Muller yogurt coupon giveaway!

Brooklyn Flea’s Ice Cream Bonanza

Today was a gorgeous day to be out and about, so I went to the Brooklyn Flea’s Ice Cream Bonanza in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  I sampled ice cream from many vendors:  honey lavender from Luca & Bosco, salted caramel from Fort Grace, Thai from Odd Fellows, mole from La Newyorkina, banana whama and coconut key lime from Phin & Phebes, Old Bay corn from The Bent Spoon and sweet as honey and ooey gooey butter cake from Ample Hills.  My favorite was the ooey gooey butter cake from Ample Hills.  This was seriously delicious ice cream!


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.

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 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

Weekend Whets 5/24

Local Food, Global Trade, and the Future of Rural Communities, Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, Manhattan:  Writer Fabio Parasecoli discusses issues regarding where food products come from.

New Taste of the Upper West Side, Wednesday, May 29, 2013 through Saturday, June 1, 2013, Columbus Avenue between West 76th and West 77th Streets, Upper West Side:  Annual festival celebrating restaurants and chefs of the Upper West Side.  Ticket sales fund the Streetscape project.

Meat Hooked!, Thursday, May 30, 2013, 6:30 p.m., BLDG 92 , Brooklyn Navy Yard Center, 63 Flushing Ave (at Carlton), Brooklyn:  Gotham Center Director Suzanne Wasserman’s new film, a documentary about meat and the rise and fall and rise again of butchers and butchering in and around New York.  $8/$5 members.

A Secret History of Coffee, Coca, and Cola, Thursday, June 6, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, Manhattan:  A discussion by author Richard Cortes.

A Moveable Feast, Tuesday, June 12, 2013, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 101 West 15th Street, Manhattan:  Apartment hop in the Stonehenge building trying gourmet bites at this James Beard Greens (foodies under 40) event.  Tickets $95 non-members.

Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, Manhattan:  Writer Martha Rosenberg discusses what goes on behind the scenes at large food companies.

The Food Truck Handbook, Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, Manhattan:  Food truck owner David Weber discusses New York’s food trucks.

On the Chocolate Trail, Monday, July 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, Manhattan:  Author Deborah R. Prinz discusses the history of the chocolate trade.

Happy Hour: Réunion Bar

On my recent Neighborhood Watch column on 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, I mentioned wanting to try Réunion bar on West 44th Street and 9th Avenue.  Well, I finally tried it this week, and I’ve already been twice!  If you’re missing the beach or a tropical clime, this is the place to be in NYC!  Just take the stairs down to the small bar that is kind of hidden and still a bit undiscovered.  You’ll see surfboards, video of surfers riding waves, coconut shell cups behind the bar and other beach bar decor.

The menu is limited as one would expect at a bar, but it’s a quality menu with some creative choices. I highly recommend trying the “Tot” Chos, basically Tater Tot nachos…with sour cream, guacamole and jack cheese.

tater tots

There are happy hour drink specials as well, but I opted for some special cocktails. I really like the Coco Loco, Réunion’s version of a Piña Colada.

pina colada

I also tried the Hawaiian Pog, a Hawaiian Daquiri with passion fruit, orange and guava.

Hawaiian pog

The owner and bartenders are super friendly and welcoming, and the bar has a pleasant, chill vibe to kick back and relax after the work week!