Villa Tronco prepares to celebrate 75 years in Columbia
As American soldiers arrived at Fort Jackson in 1940 to prepare for what soon would become World War II, many were served home-cooked meals by a woman who ran a fruit stand across from a bus station on Blanding Street. Sadie Tronco’s acts of kindness for the soldiers led her to found a restaurant that will celebrate its 75th anniversary in Columbia next week.
“They would ship the northern soldiers down to Columbia to go to Fort Jackson,” said Villa Tronca owner Carmella Roche, Tronco’s granddaughter. “When they found out my grandmother was Italian, they begged her for pizza and spaghetti and meatballs because they were homesick for their mothers’ cooking.”
Word of Tronco’s cooking skills spread fast, and she soon abandoned the fruit business and opened Villa Tronco at 1213 Blanding St., where it remains today. It was the first Columbia restaurant to serve pizza, and to say it was a hit would be an understatement.
“The people would be lined down the street, and she would have to let them in, lock the door, feed them, and then let them out and let the next batch in,” Roche said.
Tronco became known to customers as “Mamma Tronco,” and the restaurant became a family business. Roche and her husband, Joe, are the third generation to operate the restaurant, and there’s no end in sight.
“My daughter works with us; she makes all the cheesecakes now and manages during the daytime,” Roche said. “So she’s fourth, and then I have three grandchildren and they would actually be the fifth generation.”
Villa Tronco’s menu still contains many of the dishes Mamma Tronco served.
“They’re the ones she created. They’re the ones we do at home,” Roche said. The daily specials, however, are created by the chefs. “That gives us a new little spice, but we always have traditional Italian. That’s what we grew up on, that’s what the restaurant was built on: your pizza, lasagna, eggplant, those kind of things.”
The restaurant building, constructed in 1858 and originally the home of the Columbia Fire Department, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is in many ways unchanged from its antebellum origins. The original brick construction and original skylight remain, as does the ramp the firefighters used to walk their horses into the firehouse stable, which is now one of the restaurant’s seating areas.
Roche grew up working in the restaurant for her parents, Henry Martin and Carmella Tronco Martin. She answered phones and waited tables, learning the business from bottom to top.
“In this business you do everything,” she said. “You better know it all.”
Her father, now 91, and her mother, now 90, will be on hand for the restaurant’s anniversary celebration and to celebrate one of their own; their 69th wedding anniversary is Aug. 12.
Roche said her family and the restaurant have made it through many changes in 75 years to stand now as South Carolina’s oldest restaurant.
“I keep thinking this is one of the few things that’s the oldest in South Carolina that’s not in Charleston,” said Katie Alice Walker of KAW Communications, who works with Roche on marketing for Villa Tronco.
The road for the family was not always easy. Roche’s grandparents and parents were targets of racial prejudice as Italian-Americans.
“They had to sit in the back [of city buses],” Roche said. “They couldn’t use the same bathroom [as non-Italian white Americans]. It was terrible.”
Economic challenges also came, as many businesses left the downtown are for malls and suburban locations.
“The streets were just bustling” in downtown Columbia in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Roche. “Then things changed and the economy changed and we felt that as well as all the other businesses. ”
She said the nature of the business was the key to its survival.
“We are the family. We did the work,” she said. “When we had to cut back, we were here to do it.”
Roche said the restaurant has many customers whose families have been coming for generations but that she’s always ready to welcome first timers too.
“My husband and I are here all the time, and I know who’s new, who I haven’t seen before.” She added that people are encouraged to come as they are. “You may come here and see somebody in shorts or you might see somebody in a tux. It’s a good mix and we love them all.”
Frequent customer Eric Stockard says every visit brings memories of “Valentine’s Day with my lovely wife, Grammy Viv’s 90th birthday and lots of great lunches. Awesome food, I like the lamb and seafood dishes.”
Roche said the restaurant has been the scene of countless marriage proposals over the years, including two in one night.
The restaurant will offer $7.50 specials on some dishes during the anniversary celebration next week at lunch and dinner.
“We’re going to offer our pizza and pasta, which is basically what got us started, so that’s what we wanted to showcase.” Roche said all the ingredients are fresh and locally sourced.
The anniversary week also will include live entertainment, which has become a staple at the restaurant in recent years, with performers showing off their talents in opera, Broadway songs and jazz.
“This is all local talent, and that’s what’s so exciting for them as well as us,” Roche said. “You don’t have to pay for that. Just come and have dinner.”
Roche said leaving downtown has never been an option and that she and her Main Street area neighbors work together in many ways.
“I want to support them because all of those people support us. I think that’s really interesting about the downtown community. They are so supportive of all the businesses here. we all send business to one another.”
More information about Villa Tronco and the anniversary week specials is available here or via phone at (803) 256-7677.