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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Villa Tronco, Columbia, South Carolina

I Expected More

Villa Tronco is a historic restaurant in the heart of South Carolina's historic capital city. Situated behind an unprepossessing facade on Blanding Street between Main and Sumter, the eatery boasts of being the oldest continuously operating restaurant in South Carolina, the first Italian restaurant in Columbia, and it claims to be responsible for introducing pizza to the capital city's curious denizens. Beginning as a fruit store in 1930, Villa Tronco is the legacy of James and Sadie (Carnaggio) Tronco, now owned and operated by the third generation of the Tronco family and still employing, it is said, “Mama” Tronco's original recipes for dishes that delighted homesick Northern soldiers of Italian descent stationed at nearby Fort Jackson during WWII.

It was based upon this amazing heritage and upon mostly positive online reviews that I chose Villa Tronco as our family vacation dining destination on a sultry Saturday evening in June. Frankly, I expected more.

Anybody who has read anything I've published in the last dozen or so years will recognize that my wife and I have something more than a passing knowledge of and appreciation for Italian food. My son and daughter-in-law, both world-traveled military veterans, were our dining companions on this evening. My son recently spent several years living in Italy, so perhaps, taken as a whole, we were a bit of a tough crowd.

Starting on a positive note, everything I read about the ambiance of Villa Tronco was dead on. With lots of dark wood, exposed brick, and subtle lighting there was a definite “old world” vibe to the place that, along with tasteful d├ęcor and substantial but comfortable furnishings made for an interesting and pleasant dining atmosphere. A lot of modern restaurants try very hard to achieve what this charming and venerable old spot generates easily and naturally. Kudos to the current generation of Troncos for beautifully balancing old and new.

The service was prompt, friendly, and efficient. Our hostess seated us quickly, our waitress was attentive without being obtrusive, and my water glass never got below half-full. Villa Tronco has a full bar and an expansive wine list from which both my wife and my “Italian wine snob” son partook.

Alas, though, the food was not on the same level as the atmosphere and the wine. Right from the start, temperature seemed to be a problem.

We ordered antipasti of fried calamari and fried mozzarella. The mozzarella arrived on a nice warm plate, but was itself barely above room temperature. Unless served piping hot, mozzarella fritta tends to be rather dense and chewy, as was the case here. And the thin red sauce in which it was served was a harbinger of things to come.

My daughter-in-law's entree of cheese ravioli was stone cold upon arrival. Again, the plate was warm as was the sauce, but the ripieno, the rich filling of ricotta and Parmesan, had obviously spent too much time in the freezer or the walk in and not enough time in the pot. We sent the dish back. I don't know if Chef Mike (restaurant-speak for a microwave) fixed it or what, but it came back a few minutes later at the proper temp.

My wife had no real complaints about her linguine in meat sauce other than the fact that the sauce lacked what she called “zing,” something I found to be true about all the tomato-based sauces we were served. They weren't bad per se, they were just.......unremarkable.

My son soldiered through his “combo piatto,” an oddly named sampling of lasagna, cheese ravioli, and Fettuccine Tronco (which looked suspiciously like Alfredo) all on one plate. He finished with neither complaint nor compliment, but I got the general impression of his being politely unimpressed.

I figured to try the famous pizza which “Mama” Tronco introduced to Columbia. “The crust is still rolled by hand,” the literature proclaims, “and cut into squares so that you know it's handmade.” Again the temperature bug bit. The serving pan was toasty warm but the pizza was barely so.

Okay, I used to rag on my cooks about warming plates. Warm food is better on a warm serving plate. But I swear I never had to instruct them to make sure the food was at least as warm as the plate on which it was served. I don't know what was happening here, but it certainly marred the experience.

Anyway, the pizza was.......unremarkable. You can tell the crust was “rolled” rather than tossed or stretched by hand because it was dense and lifeless. Rolling and compressing pizza dough does that. That's why vero pizzaioli always toss or stretch the dough by hand. The sauce was thin, rather sweet, and, as my wife said, lacking in “zing.” The cheese was the typical “pizza cheese” sold by Sysco, US Foods, and other restaurant industry food purveyors. Granted, I've had worse pizza out of convenience store microwaves, but I've also had far better at places with far less vaunted reputations. In the restaurant's history it is recorded that “Mama” Tronco had to give pizza away at first because people didn't know what it was. Bless her sainted memory, if what I was served was an example, I can relate.

Look, I seldom bash a restaurant because I've been in the business and I know how hard it can be. I generally allow acres for benefit of the doubt. And despite my apparent negativity here, I'm not really trying to bash Tronco's. As a very typical, very average, very Italian-AMERICAN restaurant, it stands as an adequate representative of the genre. I'm just reiterating that, based on the build up, I expected more. The online “reviewers” who trumpet things like “highly recommended for anyone looking for a great Italian meal” and “one of the best Italian restaurants I have dined at in years” obviously don't know diddly squat about Italian food or Italian restaurants. Everything on the menu is the type of food I would expect to find anywhere in Rome. Georgia, that is. It is decent enough Italian-American fare, but there is very little by way of anything outstandingly Italian. Chicken Parm? A butter, cream, and cheese sauced fettuccine dish? Linguine with meatballs? Maryland Crab Cakes? Uffa! Mi dispiace, mama. Un stella o due per l'atmosfera, ma no stelle per il cibo.

Bottom line: Villa Tronco is a good, if somewhat pedestrian, Italian-American red-sauce joint. If you're looking for a nice Italian-ish place for a date night or for a family gathering and you're not really particular about authentic or high-end Italian food, it's perfect. It's not super-cheap but also not super-expensive. We had an app, two entrees, and a glass of wine on our ticket for fifty bucks. I mean, go soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. That said, I doubt we'll make it a regular stop on our occasional trips through the area. Which is probably good since I'm sure the locals and the faithful are already plucking chickens and heating up tar in anticipation of my return. But it is what it is. And what it is is just Olive Garden in classier digs.

Located at 1213 Blanding Street, Villa Tronco is open 11 to 3 and 5 to 10 Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 only on Saturday. They're closed on Sunday. Dress is casual, reservations are accepted but not required, and parking is metered on-street that is free after 6 pm. Call them at 803.256.7677 or find them online at villatronco.com.

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