In 1940, Italian soldiers were being shipped into Columbia to go to Fort Jackson, most of them hungry and homesick. Nestled just across the street from the Greyhound bus station, Sadie Tronco was there to feed them.
Originally a fruit store, the founding of Italian staple Villa Tronco was spurred by the presence of immigrant soldiers in South Carolina during World War II.
“[The soldiers] really begged [Sadie] to make spaghetti and meatballs and pizza,” granddaughter Carmella Roche said. “She said, ‘Well, this is what I think they want, so I’m gonna do it.’ So, she discontinued the fruit business.”
Today, Roche co-owns the restaurant with her husband Joe, though Grandma Tronco’s presence can still be found in the restaurant’s classic recipes and the black and white photos that line the walls of the dining rooms.
One of Villa Tronco’s most popular dishes and Roche’s personal favorite is the chicken soup, but it isn’t just regular chicken noodle — it’s made with pastina.
“My grandmother, anytime we were all sick or we had a new baby in the house, she always fixed pastina,” Roche said. “If you weren’t feeling well, that was the soup that you went to — you know, just a comfort soup.”
Roche herself was raised in the restaurant, and it’s the only job she’s ever worked. She started with taking telephone orders as a young girl, and in high school she progressed to waiting tables. When she married Joe in 1972, Roche and her husband took a more active role in the business, managing day-to-day operations.
“This is something you have to want, have to love,” Roche said. “Every business is difficult, but this is very challenging with all the things that would come up with employees, equipment, just day-to-day operations.”
The biggest challenge, Roche said, is finding employees who are dependable and will stay long-term, in part because of the volume of restaurants in Columbia.
However, Roche maintains a strong connection with USC’s campus, and many of the waiters and waitresses she hires are USC students.
“They all stay in touch with us, so that is very rewarding for us that we help these young people get through their college years here at Villa Tronco. They made enough money to pay their rent, or their college tuition or things like that,” Roche said.
Michal Talley, a USC graduate student, is one of the few who worked this summer after the pandemic limited Villa Tronco’s business. Talley is currently living with her grandparents who used to golf with Roche and her husband.
“We were trying to find a job for the summer before school started, and my grandma came by here and she wrote “Judy Stiles’ granddaughter” on the application and they called me the next day because they knew my grandma.”
Roche said she considers her staff like family, from the short-term servers to the longstanding kitchen staff, including chef Nate Skipper. Skipper has worked for Villa Tronco for 12 years and said the atmosphere is very family-like.
“We’ve all been involved in each other’s marriages and weddings and stuff like that, so it goes beyond the restaurant,” he said.
During Christmas, Roche said there is an internal party as a thank you for the work that year, and sometimes the Roches even buy tickets to Fireflies games for the staff.
This past May was Villa Tronco’s 80th anniversary, but planned festivities had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Though Roche said she was disappointed, she’s also determined to bounce back.
“My family worked so hard through the years to build our business and to make it such a successful business,” she said, “that we’ll do everything we can to come back and make it right.”