For Carmella Roche and generations of Columbia's citizens, exposed brick, welcoming staff and family portraits hanging on the wall make walking into Villa Tronco Italian Restaurant feel like coming home.
As the oldest restaurant in South Carolina, Villa Tronco has been serving Columbia residents Italian cuisine for 83 years, and business shows no signs of slowing down.
Opening in 1943 under Sadie Tronco, Villa Tronco began as a place for Italian descent soldiers stationed at Camp Jackson in Columbia to get a taste of home-cooked Italian food. The restaurant soon became a fixture of the city's Main Street sector.
The menu today includes the same classic dishes fixed by Tronco when it first opened as well as regularly updated specials. However, now it is is owned and operated by Carmella Roche, granddaughter of Tronco, and her husband. In the many years that Roche has been at Villa Tronco, she said she has seen families grow up alongside the restaurant.
“I remember some of the families that the children were small and they would sleep in the booths. They were so little they fell asleep in the booth, and now they’re grown up and married and have children of their own,” Roche said.
According to Roche, many older customers who were regulars when Tronco was still working continue to come to the restaurant today for the food and the sense of family . Many employees have been there for years as well, like waitress Nikki Christian, who has been at Villa Tronco for seven years.
“Carmella and (her husband) really put in place how it's a family establishment, and you feel it when you’re here, and you feel it with your coworkers,” Christian said.
Villa Tronco even continues to do a “Friendsgiving” with former and current employees every year. Christian said she has made many lifelong friendships during her time as a waitress at Villa Tronco.
The customers themselves also contribute to the welcoming and friendly atmosphere by caring about the restaurant and their servers, she said.
“If (regulars) come in, and I’m not here, they're worried or something, ‘Where is Nikki?’” Christian said.
Newly hired hostess Meg Cabana said one of the reasons she chose to work at Villa Tronco was because of the "friendly environment" created by the workers and customers and is looking forward to getting to know everybody.
"In addition to the friendly staff, I want to get to know some of the patrons." Cabana, who is also a fifth-year physical therapy student, said.
One way the restaurant has continued to build community with customers is through its "music nights." After being approached by the Palmetto Opera 13 years ago about wanting to incorporate a "dinner-theater" approach, Roche started having singers come into the restaurant to perform during dinner service. The live music ranges from opera to Broadway to even the “Rat Pack” stylings.
“(The restaurant is) always full, we’ve always made really good business, people love it,” Christian said.
While Roche said she does not know what the future has in store for her restaurant and her family, she said she is hopeful.
"We just have to see but right now, things are wonderful. Things are going great," Roche said.
As for the customers, Roche said they are the reason she keeps the door opening, making sure she continues to foster relationships and treat all of her guests like family.
“The gratification that we get from our customers, and the nice words and emails and thanks, thats what makes it all worth,” Roche said.