Category Archives: Restaurant

Dina’s Favorite Pizza in the Triangle

Dina’s Favorite Pizza in the Triangle

by Dina Di Maio

Photo by Alan Hardman on Unsplash

I’m a harsh judge of pizza. For a few good reasons. My parents owned a pizzeria. People in my family have owned pizzerias in the U.S. as early as the 1930s.  Both sides of my family are from Naples. And I wrote a book with a chapter on the history of pizza, Authentic Italian.

Authentic Italian

I’m qualified to write about pizza, and since I’ve lived in the Triangle off and on since 1993, I’m qualified to write about pizza in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay

Pizza should be judged on 3 criteria, and 3 criteria only: 1. Crust 2. Sauce 3. Cheese

Crust is the most important component and an especially difficult one to master. If you cannot make a decent dough, you shouldn’t be making pizza. (The best crust I ever had was at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven.)

Photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

Having said that, I’ve tried pizza at many of the area’s pizzerias, although not all, because despite the fact that pizza is so ingrained in my blood and heritage, it’s actually not one of my personally favorite foods. However, I am well-schooled in its craft and know a good one from a bad one.

One can find New York, Neapolitan, Chicago style and Turkish pide in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and other areas of the Triangle. Unfortunately, most I have had were mediocre.

Oakwood Pizza Box

I’ve been pizza-wowed only once in Raleigh. And that was at Oakwood Pizza Box, which I think is an example of good crust, sauce and cheese, and the best example of pizza to be found in the Triangle. Not a surprise from the owners of the former Bella Mia in Cary, a since-closed pizzeria that was also one of my favorites in the Triangle. The owner, Anthony Guerra, is an Italian American from New York with ancestry from Basilicata, a region of Southern Italy.

Have I had an OK pie elsewhere? Yes. I can’t say I’m an expert on Chicago style, although I’ve had a really good one in Chicago, but if I’m in the mood for it or the occasion arises, I go to Nancy’s in North Raleigh, a local franchise of the pizzeria chain created by Italian immigrants who patterned the pizza after a traditional Easter pie.

Nancy’s Pizzeria

I had a decent pie at Anna’s in Apex (while I like their regular pie, I wasn’t a fan of their grandma pizza). In Durham, Pizzeria Toro and Pie Pushers were OK, the latter especially if you like a cheesier pie.

Pizzeria Toro

Pie Pushers

Now and again, I enjoy an eggplant pizza from Frank’s Pizza, a classic old-fashioned pizza parlor. If I’m reminiscing for the simpler times of Raleigh, I’ll go to Mellow Mushroom or Lilly’s. Salvio’s is my go-to for New York-style. On the rare occasion I’m in Rolesville, I’ve enjoyed Pie-Zano’s, a pizzeria owned by Italians from New Jersey. If I want Turkish pide, I go to Istanbul or Bosphorus in Cary.

pide from Istanbul Restaurant

I like the chain Piola for the Brazilian catupiry cheese, created by an Italian immigrant to the country.

Pizza from Piola with catupiry cheese

All of these have something interesting to offer, even though some are chains or part of restaurant groups or not owned by Italians or Italian Americans. There aren’t older Italian-American pizzerias in North Carolina because Italians didn’t immigrate to the state due to its painful history toward Italian immigrants the first half of the last century.*

Generally, I don’t want a pizzeria that supports shareholders/investors or people looking to capitalize on pizza’s popularity, although sometimes it’s unavoidable, say if you’re out with a group and everyone decides to go to one of those places. I feel that if a restaurant group or chain wants to capitalize on an Italian and Italian-American food, it should give something back to the Italian-American community. Acknowledge the history of Italian Americans. Maybe donate to a scholarship fund for local Italian Americans. Or donate to an Italian-American organization, museum, or charity somewhere in the United States to in some way honor the heritage from which you are borrowing.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

What do I want in a pizza? Is it too much to ask for that Di Fara’s Pizza pride, the heritage, the craftsmanship? Domenico De Marco became a legend because of his obsessive devotion to pizza. That, and the fact that he makes one of the best dang pies around. One can’t expect that from every pizzeria, but what stands out to me is a pizza that stays true to my heritage and that supports a local family business and the cultural history of pizza. Oh, yeah, it has to taste good too.

–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at Amazon.com

*(There is a town named Valdese that was settled by Protestant Northern Italians, but their foodways are different from Southern Italians, who originated pizza as we know it.)

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All writings and photographs are the intellectual property of me, unless I’ve noted otherwise, and can only be used with permission. If you are inspired by this blog, please use professional courtesy to note it.

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

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.

Neighborhood Watch: Arthur Avenue in the Bronx

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Arthur Avenue, the Little Italy of the Bronx, is the only real Italian neighborhood left in NYC.  If you’re looking for an authentic Italian American experience, this is the place to be.  However, it’s not so easy to get to.  It’s a long, hilly walk from the subway.  Or if you take a cab, the cab driver will not know where it is.  I know cab drivers are supposed to know where to go in the boroughs, but they don’t, especially in the Bronx and Queens and sometimes, Brooklyn.  I suggest you have directions or your phone GPS on hand to assist the driver.

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The main strip is Arthur Avenue from East 184th Street to East 187th Street.  On East 187th Street, there’s Artuso’s Pastry, the home of the famous Pope cookies.  In case you are looking for them, the Pope cookies were made for Pope Benedict’s visit to New York and his recent resignation, but they do not have Pope cookies now.

Visit Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

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Walk west to Egidio Pastry and admire the case full of beautiful pastries.

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The history of the building is evident with its tin ceiling.

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Here, we tried a mini cannoli and a mini sfogliatelle. They were both very good, but the sfogliatelle was particularly well crafted with flaky layers.

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DeLillo Pastry has outdoor seating and a mighty fine cannoli with creamy ricotta filling.

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There are a lot of bakeries on this small strip, so if you are doing a tasting, be prepared to eat a lot or to take some home. I brought my rolling backpack so that I could easily bring things home with me.

In addition to bakeries, there are ravioli/pasta shops, seafood markets, meat markets, cheese shops, pizzerias, Italian restaurants and kitchen stores. At Marie’s, you can get dinnerware and housewares, as well as coffee, from Italy.
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OK, vegetarians in the crowd will not want to look at the next photo–the body of a sheep hanging in the window of a meat market.

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Teitel Brothers is an Italian grocery store owned by a Jewish family that has been in the neighborhood since 1915.

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Now this is something you don’t see anymore–a bread bakery.  Zito’s and Vesuvio’s in the city closed awhile ago.  Thank goodness Addeo’s is still here in the Bronx.

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Look at that bread.

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At Biancardi’s meat market, you can still get capuzelle, or sheep’s head.

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Madonia Bakery has beautiful bread and also fills cannoli to order.

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I got some yummy cookies for the road.

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In the middle of the block, there’s an indoor market, the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, with a butcher, fish and produce market as well as products from Italy and Arthur Avenue T-shirts and souvenirs.

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The butcher here had beef feet.  I’ve never seen these before and am not sure how Italians use them.

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If you’re into offal, this is the place to be.  Here’s cotenne, the pig skin I’ve written about, in the rear of this photo.

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Brains, anyone?

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OK, I definitely share the sentiment with these T-shirts.

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Check out Cerini Coffee, a fun store with housewares from Italy.

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At Morrone Pastry Shop & Café, I got a rainbow cookie cake slice and a tortoni.  Both were delicious.  (I also bought a rainbow cookie cake for my aunt’s birthday.  I froze it the day I bought it and thawed it a week later.  It was fresh, moist and delicious.)

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In case you thought I just had sweets, I did stop for a slice of pizza at Catania’s.

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What to Eat:  pastries and bread from Artuso’s, Egidio’s, DeLillo’s, Madonia’s, Addeo’s or Morrone’s; pizza from Catania’s.

Where to Shop:  Marie’s and Cerini’s for kitchen wares; the Arthur Avenue Retail Market for souvenirs, produce and Italian goods; Borgatti’s for ravioli; Randazzo’s for seafood.

What to See:  Columbus statue at East 183rd Street and Arthur Avenue, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on East 187th Street.

Neighborhood Watch: Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle is named after famed explorer Christopher Columbus.  The 75-foot-high statue was created by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo in 1892 for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

Columbus

New Yorkers recently got to see Columbus face to face in the Discovering Columbus exhibit by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi where a scaffold was built to get to the head of the statue where a “modern living room” was constructed.  Guests were invited into the living room to see the sculpture’s face up close for a different perspective on Columbus.

Columbus Circle

The vicinity of the Circle is a foodie oasis, with a plethora of places to visit for quick bites or grandiose meals.  With the famed Time Warner Center and its Shops at Columbus Circle on the west side of the Circle, there are a number of options, including the pinnacle restaurant, Per Se.  For culture, Jazz at Lincoln Center, is also nearby.  For accommodations, ever hear of the Trump International Hotel and Tower?  (You may recognize it as the site of Ben Stiller’s Tower Heist movie.)  There’s also the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which has a piece of Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby.  (I love Chihuly’s work.  I volunteered at the Orlando Museum of Art’s Chihuly exhibit back in 2004.)

Time Warner Center

Time Warner Center houses luxury shops, as well as a Whole Foods and a Williams Sonoma for some foodie-related shopping.  The dining options include Bouchon Bakery (also owned by Per Se owner Thomas Keller), A Voce, Masa, Landmarc and Porter House.

Per Se

cookies from Per Se

I’ve eaten at Per Se, which is the restaurant to dine in NYC, with a perfect view of Christopher Columbus and Central Park.  Here, you experience luxury dining at its finest.  I’ve also eaten at A Voce for high-end Italian

cheese, fava beans and olive oil from A Voce

cheese, fava beans and olive oil from A Voce

and Porter House for classic American fare.

Scottish salmon

Scottish salmon from Porter House

Bouchon Bakery is one of my favorites for many sweet treats, including the best raspberry macaroons!

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But there is more to Columbus Circle than the Time Warner Center.  At the east side of the Circle is the USS Maine National Monument. This is the gateway to Central Park where you can walk off all this extravagance. During the holidays, this is the scene of the Columbus Circle Holiday Market.

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the USS Maine National Monument

On the north and east sides, the legendary Little Italy bakery Ferrara has outposts where you can get their famous pastries.

Ferrara

On the south side of the Circle, visit the Museum of Arts & Design.  On the ground floor sits the gift shop with many interesting jewelry and home decor pieces.  I saw a Judy Chicago exhibit here once.

MAD

If you want to dine with one of the best views in the city, go to the top floor for the museum’s restaurant, Robert, and the food is excellent too.

ricotta pancakes from Robert

ricotta pancakes from Robert

A block to the west is the fairly new Sur La Table for cooking items and cooking classes, if you’re game.  Or stroll down Broadway to Grom for some gelato if it’s warm outside or some hot chocolate if it’s cold out.

Grom hot chocolate

You won’t be disappointed with the rich chocolatey drinks and gelato made with Italian ingredients.

Grom

If you’re not a coffee drinker, look no further, there’s an Argo Tea where you can get any number of tea concoctions.

Argo Tea

A block down is Francois Payard‘s bakery of French-style delights.  If you read my blog, you know I’m a Payard fan.

macaroons from Francois Payard

macaroons from Francois Payard

What to Eat:  macaroons from Bouchon Bakery or Francois Payard bakery, pastries from Ferrara, gelato from Grom, luxury dining at Per Se, classic American fare at Porter House, sushi at Masa, dining with a view at Robert, tea at Argo, high-end Italian at A Voce.

Where to Shop:  Time Warner Center for luxury shops and Williams Sonoma, Museum of Arts & Design gift shop, Sur La Table, Columbus Circle Holiday market (in season).

What to See:  Columbus monument, USS Maine monument, Museum of Arts & Design, Time Warner Center, Central Park, Chihuly sculpture at Mandarin Oriental hotel.