Category Archives: Restaurant

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.

Dinner: Arriba Arriba

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Today, I’m celebrating Mexican food with a trip to Arriba Arriba, the popular Mexican spot in Hell’s Kitchen.  This place is always packed and has outdoor seating if you like to dine al fresco.  It can get a little loud inside and with the low lighting and pounding music, it has more of a lounge vibe.

Arriba Arriba makes the best cheese enchiladas mole served with Spanish rice and a salad.

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The alambre–marinated shrimp, steak and veggies skewer with rice and sauces.

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And my favorite, the delicious huge burritos.

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Dinner: Sparks Steak House

I’m rounding out famous New York City steakhouses with Sparks Steak House.  From the moment you are greeted by the host, you feel the classic, upscale feel of Sparks.  The dark wood and large-framed Hudson River school landscape paintings on gold and burgundy walls evoke a time gone by.  The bar has quite a hopping after work suit crowd.  Clearly, it’s still a place where the good old boys do business meals and deals.

On my visit, I got a steakhouse classic, the sliced tomato and onion salad.

sparks tomato and onion salad

For sides, we shared the creamed spinach and hash brown potatoes.

creamed spinach and hash browns

I got a filet mignon.

Sparks filet mignon

My friend got prime sirloin steak.

Sparks sirloin

For dessert, I got the house special, strawberry Romanoff, a special cream made with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream and Grand Marnier.

strawberry romanoff

My friend loved his steak and the sides.  My steak and salad were good.  The dessert wasn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be by the sound of it.  But I highly recommend Sparks as it is a great steakhouse with a classic New York atmosphere and good food.

Breadmen’s

Breadmen’s is a diner that’s a local favorite in Chapel Hill, NC, serving classic American food.  It’s also a family favorite in my family.  While I’m not an onion ring fan, my family says Breadmen’s makes the best.

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At a recent visit, I opted for an egg-white omelet.  It came with Southern breakfast classics–a biscuit and grits.

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We also got French toast

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a mushroom and cheddar omelet

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and a cheesesteak sandwich

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Two for Tuesday: Arepas & Empanadas

My love affair with empanadas doesn’t go back very far, but when I first had them, it was forever.  My preference is for corn flour empanadas, and I opt for the more traditional ones rather than concoctions like pizza empanada.  I was excited to see that Raleigh, NC, got an empanada bar, so I had to try it.  Calavela Empanada is in a trendy neighborhood near City Market in downtown Raleigh, and it also has a bar for the night crowd.  Downtown Raleigh tends to have a young professional crowd, and that’s who patronized this restaurant when I visited.

I wound up getting the Piggly Wiggly since I was in North Carolina–it’s a pulled pork empanada and the holy frijoles with black beans, sweet potato and Oaxacan cheese.

empanadas

Both of these lacked flavor, and the dough was more of a pie pastry than what I’m used to for empanada dough.

My friend got the champ, which is a mushroom empanada and poblano loco with poblano peppers.  She felt the same way about hers as I did.  On the flip side, these are only $3 a pop, so this is the cheapest option for a night out in downtown Raleigh.

Guasaca in West Raleigh is a fast food restaurant serving arepas.  Arepas are Venezuelan breads made from corn flour.  I’ve had them in the city, but I must admit I was not a huge fan.  What’s cool here is that you can order a signature arepa or build your own.  I got an avocado chicken arepa and a tilapia one with baked plantains and caramelized onions.  I also got red sauce and cilantro sauce on the side.  These were pretty yummy, although messy because the bread is not a pocket so it doesn’t hold the ingredients.

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North Carolina State Farmers’ Market Restaurant

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If you’re visiting Raleigh, North Carolina, and you want some authentic country cooking, then the North Carolina State Farmers’ Market Restaurant is the place to go.  The menu is very varied and the atmosphere is really cute.  The service is super friendly as well.  Plus, it’s right at the NC Farmers’ Market, so you can peruse the fresh produce and goods there before or after your meal and make a day outing.

No Southern breakfast is complete without biscuits.

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I got an omelet with home fries.

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My companions got

French toast

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omelet with grits

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and fried chicken with rice and gravy and crowder peas

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Everything was really good, especially the biscuits!