baltimore_cooking_with_the_troias_nov09

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At 10 a.m. on an early fall day, Gino Troia is in the cramped galley kitchen of Grano, preparing Puttanesca, Bolognese and eight other sauces for the hungry crowds that descend on the humble Hampden pasta bar each day. Several miles north, in the earth-toned, hushed dining rooms of Café Troia, Gino’s ex-wife, Carol Troia, and their eldest daughter, Lisa Troia Martin, are inspecting the table settings and the heavy, leather-bound menus in preparation for the lunch crowd of lawyers and business people who dine at the venerable downtown Towson institution.

And a few hundred yards east on Allegheny Avenue, in Zia’s Café, with its lime green walls and mountain air aroma (thanks to a few drops of essential oil placed into the miniature fountain), Daniela Troia, the youngest daughter, is stocking the cold case with the day’s selections of raw food, including live zucchini Alfredo, live taco salad, raw shepherd’s pie and raw tiramisu.

At this hour, Elena Troia, the matriarch of them all, is at her Lutherville home, having rightfully earned the chance to rest and relax after 29 years in the tailoring business and nearly 10 years in the kitchen at Café Troia— not to mention a few months helping out Daniela when she opened Zia’s in 2004. At 86, Elena claims she “doesn’t cook much” anymore, though she still makes dinner regularly for her son, Gino. And since, as she says, “I don’t like frozen food and I don’t like leftovers,” she cooks daily. But even if she never again made her famous eggplant parmesan, or pasta with cauliflower or squash, or hearty homemade soups, Baltimoreans would still be ingesting her culinary creations. The food served at Grano, Café Troia and, yes, Zia’s Café, bears the influence of the short, round Italian lady known to her family as Nonna, who brought her family to Baltimore in 1962 so they could have more opportunities than existed in war-ravaged Naples.

Carol and LisaLong before the Troias arrived in Baltimore, members of the family were active participants in Italy’s rich culinary culture. In the early 1900s, Elena’s uncle was the renowned chef for Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortes, the Duke of Monteleone, who lived in a palace on the outskirts of Naples. Elena’s sister apprenticed as a chef in Strasbourg, Germany, after World War II and went on to open restaurants in Stuttgart and Sorrento. And she and her husband, Carmine, a chef, opened their first restaurant in Calabria, at the toe of Italy’s boot, in 1952 and ran it for several years before getting homesick and returning to Naples. “I always loved to be in the restaurant business,” says Elena in her heavily accented English. “I love to create dishes.”

As intertwined as the Troias were with life in Naples— the entire extended family of 15 or so lived in one big house— they longed to escape. “Everyone in Naples wanted to go to America,” says Gino. “We had no recollection of the war— I was born in 1945— but the destruction was everywhere around us. We were looking at the sky through the windows of bombed-out buildings, even 20 years later.” The family chose Baltimore because Elena’s sister was living here with her husband, whom she’d met during the war.

They came expecting skyscrapers and were surprised by 1960s Baltimore. “We thought America would be more modern,” says Gino. “It was not the America we expected.” The family lived with Elena’s sister in Dundalk before moving into a rowhouse on Calvert Street. Elena got a job as a dressmaker— to this day she still makes her own dress patterns— Gino enrolled at Maryland Institute College of Art to study interior design and his younger brother, Ernesto, attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. “My brother and I couldn’t speak any English,” says Gino. “When my mother, whose father was Welsh, spoke English, I wondered if I would ever speak that well. Later I realized her English wasn’t that good!”

Meanwhile, Carmine, whose English was also limited, sought out kitchen work in Little Italy’s restaurants. “He couldn’t believe everything was adulterated— that they put sugar in the tomato sauce and MSG and meat tenderizers on the meat,” says Gino. “I remember him being mad that he had to cook that kind of food.”

In speaking about Little Italy, (or, for that matter, about most of the Italian restaurants in Maryland) Gino can barely contain his disgust. His family never wanted to open a restaurant there because they wanted to cook authentic Italian food— not tourist fare, he says. And they certainly never ate in Little Italy. The few times they dined out, they traveled to Italian restaurants in D.C. or New York City.

DanielaNormally a gentle and retiring fellow, Gino breaks character to say, “If I can express my true opinion, I have to say without reservation that most Italian restaurants in Maryland suck. I think you did not expect me to say this, but you get tired of being surrounded by culinary mediocrity.”

In the late 1960s, Elena and Carmine bought a carryout restaurant in Dundalk and renamed it Bella Napoli. After a few years, the family sold the carryout and opened Europa Foods, an Italian market, on Harford Road. They struggled to make ends meet. “The problem was we didn’t conform to what people wanted at the time. We didn’t want to sell Utz potato chips. On the shelf we had Brunello and people wanted rosé,” says Gino. “The only way we survived was by working very, very hard.”

Within a few years, Carmine and Elena were able to buy a home in Hamilton with two magnolia trees and a row of azaleas in the yard. For the next three decades, Elena presided over epic Sunday dinners there. The family would arrive by 10 a.m. and start cooking, finally sitting down to eat at 2 or 3 p.m. Elena had put a second kitchen in the basement and on some Sundays the entire crew would grill peppers for canning or make gnocchi and set it on a clean white sheet atop the master bed to firm up. They’d extend the table from the dining room into the living room (eventually they widened the doorway between the two rooms) to fit 20, and onto that table would be placed platters of the foods that were home to them: soups, pastas, fish. “Cooking was the event,” says Daniela Troia, 35. “That’s what we did together. Every Sunday we were there.”

“There are so many Catholic holidays and each one has its own food,” says Daniela’s sister, Lisa Troia Martin, 43. On Mardi Gras, the family would have lasagna. On Christmas Eve, the family gathered for a feast that featured antipasto, escarole soup, pasta with mussels or clams, bakala (dried salted cod), fried cod and cauliflower critters, bronzini and eel. “Nonna is incredible,” says Lisa. “She could take a cardboard box and cook it and make it taste good.” (Elena recently co-authored a cookbook with a Greek friend, and plans to create a second one that intersperses stories of her life with family recipes.)

“On Thanksgiving, my grandmother made a full Italian meal— seven courses— and then we’d have turkey dinner,” says Daniela. “I was like, ‘Can’t we have American food one day a year?’”

ErnestoBy the late 1970s, Gino’s brother, Ernesto, was working as the chef at Velleggia’s in Towson after attending culinary school at Baltimore International College, and Gino had opened Troia Hair Studio at 604 Allegheny Ave., smack in the middle of where Café Troia and Zia’s Café stand today. He had had some training back in Naples, but mostly he learned how to cut hair by watching his mother cut cloth, he says. “I still have people asking me to cut their hair,” he says. “But I decided it wasn’t really my vocation. Food was so innate to me. Cutting hair was a way to make money.”

Gino persuaded Ernesto to leave Velleggia’s and together they opened Troia Brothers’ International Market and Café in the lower level of the Penthouse Condominiums at 28 Allegheny Ave. “We sold mostly meats and cheeses— 30 different kinds of cheeses. We sold coffee. We sold 10 different kinds of vinegar and olive oil,” says Gino. “Our customers were interested in learning about food and we had no problem teaching them.”

But Gino and Ernesto soon learned the same lesson that Carmine and Elena had learned at Europa Foods, which they closed after a few years: the profit margin in a market wasn’t ideal. “My brother said one day, ‘Let’s take all the food and cook it,’” says Gino. So the brothers studied a recipe from “The Silver Palate” cookbook for a foreign (to them) dish known as chicken salad and incorporated touches that were familiar: fresh basil and parsley. They had a two-burner stove where Elena cooked soups and sauces and Ernesto made risotto and polenta. They put that out on the shelves, and people came in, bought it and ate it at a table. Gradually, the brothers removed the shelves and replaced them with tables, and by 1988, they were running a full-fledged restaurant— Café Troia. The Troia family— sans Carmine, who had died in 1978— was back in the restaurant business, cooking the food they loved using fresh, local ingredients long before that was the fashion.

Gino“It was an instant success,” says Gino. “People knew us from our market and from our parents’ market and the carryout. And my brother was a very good chef. It was wonderful to work with all of the family.” Carol, a former budget assistant at Johns Hopkins who’d been Gino’s partner in the salon, ran the business side of things. After Elena retired from the tailoring business, she helped in the kitchen. And once school ended for the day at Immaculate Conception, Daniela would walk in the back door of the restaurant and help out in the kitchen until after the dinner rush ended.

As the years passed, Café Troia expanded. The family remained at the core of the business, with Gino presiding over the wine list and cooking alongside Ernesto until Ernesto left to open a restaurant in the warmer climate of Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (After a few years he returned and worked periodically at the restaurant until his death in 2001.)

“In high school, I didn’t want to go into the restaurant business. I wanted to study fashion,” says Daniela. “I got a scholarship to Johnson & Wales and went to visit, but I hated the food. So I went to Essex Community College and took some courses in restaurant management, and I realized how ahead of the game I was.”

While she attended college classes, Daniela continued to wait tables and bartend at Café Troia. Then one day she moved into the kitchen. “I started on the cold side and then moved to the hot side,” she says. “I was the first female on the line there. Once I started, I was hooked.”

Like her father and her grandmother, Daniela had never had formal culinary training. But she knew how to cook after years of those elaborate Sunday dinners, and years of hanging out in the kitchen. “It was innate,” she says, echoing her father. When Gino opened Troia at The Walters in 1997, she, Carol and Lisa took over running the Towson restaurant. Daniela worked in the office for a few hours each day— developing a catering business— and then stole down to the kitchen to do whatever needed to be done. “I guess at that point, at age 23 or so, I realized this was my career. The next year I became a partner. I loved it.”

ElenaAnd yet at the same time Daniela was delight-ing in creating the restaurant’s authentic Italian cuisine, she began to notice that she often felt exhausted and that her weight fluctuated uncontrollably. She bought a book about juicing and unearthed the old juicer her father had used to make her breakfasts when she was a kid. “I started drinking juice three times a day and I really felt different,” says Daniela. “Then I started reading more about nutrition and developing my own theories. At this point, I knew I was not going to be eating the way I’d grown up eating.”

She traveled to juice bars in other cities, thinking, “I want to have my own place and create my own world.” When she mentioned the idea to her father, he was encouraging. “He saw this space for rent and told me to go for it,” she says. “He wanted me close and on the same street as Troia.”

When she opened Zia’s Café (Zia is the word for “aunt” in Italian), Daniela didn’t know she would gravitate toward raw and vegan food. The idea was to offer the juices she loved, and to do what her family had always done— offer the freshest ingredients cooked simply. “I never wanted this to be called a health food restaurant because most health food doesn’t evolve from chefs,” she says. “In the beginning, my focus was really on serving the best of everything.”

These days, given the demands of her customers, nearly two-thirds of the offerings at Zia’s Café are raw. “We’re not talking about tempeh and tofu— I’m not into that.” She points to a raw taco dip and says, “That and some dehydrated crackers— mmm. I won’t eat anything just because it’s healthy. It has to taste good.” Pointing to the live lasagna, she says, “This has all the flavors of a fabulous restaurant. I should know!”

Elena and Daniela worked together to decipher the food chemistry behind raw desserts like chocolate chip cookies, pies and cakes. Now Zia’s supplies the Baltimore- and Annapolis-area Whole Foods stores with raw wholesale food, as well as offering it at Zia’s and through a catering business. And Daniela holds monthly raw food dinners as a way of both serving the growing raw food community in town and teaching new people about that way of eating. Just as Gino taught his customers about the glories of Italian espresso, she is educating hers about the wonders of raw biryani and raw chai cheesecake. (The fundamental principle behind raw foodism is that plant foods in their most natural state are the most nutritious.)

Last September, for Elena’s 85th birthday, Daniela cooked a multi-course raw food dinner. Just like they did on countless Sundays, the Troia family gathered at a big table, except this time it was at Daniela’s house in Towson. And instead of pasta and meat and fish, they dined on raw pineapple gazpacho, raw lasagna, salad and a live fruit trifle.

“They liked it,” says Daniela. “We’re a food family, and they’re open to what I’m doing.” That said, Nonna remains mystified that Daniela won’t eat pasta (occasionally Daniela will break down and eat gluten-free pasta at Nonna’s house to be a sport). And when Daniela’s longtime boyfriend demands to go to Grano, she takes her own food.

“I’m the black sheep of the family,” she says. “Actually, everyone always called my dad the black sheep, and he is. I guess I’m the red sheep.”

Raw Food EventsIt’s not so much that Gino and Daniela are black or red sheep, says Lisa; it’s that they’re the artistic souls in the family. Pointing at her mother and herself, she says, “We’re not the artists— they are. It’s like being part of the family of Michelangelo. People say, ‘Can you paint?’ Yeah, I can paint, but not like him.”

Lisa was already studying business at Loyola College when her parents opened Café Troia, and after she graduated she got a job at T. Rowe Price, earned her M.B.A., married and had three children. She started doing office work at Troia parttime while her children were young. By 2005, she was there fulltime (and more), bringing her kids to the restaurant after school and on holidays.

In 2008, when issues with their lease arose, Lisa and Carol presided over the restaurant’s move across the street and they work there today as co-owners (though they, like everyone in the family, say they don’t believe in job titles). Lisa orders the wines, schedules the front of house staff and presides over marketing. Carol pays the bills, does the accounting and handles the catering business. In the new space, they offer the same award-winning food— among their signature dishes are Fettucine alla Bolognese, Ossobucco alla Milanese and Linguine Zia Teresa— in a nicer atmosphere, with an enlarged bar, an outdoor patio and deck and a kitchen double the size of the original one across the street.

Lisa says she is a good cook, but mostly because she grew up with good food, and because she likes to eat. As Nonna says, “To be a good cook, you have to be a good ‘fork.’” Carol, who grew up in a Polish family where cooking wasn’t much valued, says, “When I married Gino I couldn’t fry an egg. After I had Lisa, I would go over to her house for coffee and I learned to speak Italian and I learned how to cook.”

Café Troia’s longtime chef is Johnny Meyer, who worked first with Ernesto at Velleggia’s and has been at Troia for more than 20 years— but occasionally Lisa will work the line if necessary, and both she and Carol put in long hours on evenings and weekends. They laugh when people ask them who manages the restaurant. “One of us is always here,” says Carol. “We know every one of our customers— where they like to sit, what they like to eat, what they like to drink.”

Once in a while, someone who hasn’t been to Troia for a few years will come in and ask for Gino. “We just say, ‘He’s got his place downtown now,’” says Carol. There’s no animosity when she says this. Lisa and Carol are prospering at the original family business, while Daniela and Gino strike out in new directions.

On a fall afternoon, light streams into the sun porch at the new location of Grano Pasta bar at 3547 Chestnut Ave., the former site of Finnertea’s and most recently, Dangerously Delicious Pies. After a year and a half at the tiny storefront on The Avenue, Gino and partners Julie Padilla and Marc Dettori (a former co-owner of Brasserie Tatin and longtime restaurant maitre d’ and manager) have moved Grano to this space, which can seat 30 and has a kitchen that, while cozy, is far roomier than at the original location.

Gino opened Grano in April 2008 on the heels of closing Gino Troia in Canton, a restaurant he says was doomed from the start because of lack of parking and street traffic. (His restaurant at The Walters closed in 1999 due to space constraints at the museum.) “On a sunny day in January 2008 I was driving on The Avenue and I saw this ugly place on the corner. I said, ‘This is the perfect spot for a one-man operation. This is something for me to do.’”

His initial plan was to run Grano, which means “grain” in Italian, as a carryout— people would choose a pasta and a sauce and take their food to go. But when the restaurant opened, the same thing happened that had happened at Troia Brothers’ International Market and Café more than 20 years before: people wanted to stick around to eat. So Gino added as much seating as he could— there’s room for 10 inside and 10 more outside— and fleshed out the menu.

Troia at the Walters“It was an instant success,” he says, echoing his statements about the early days of Café Troia. “It’s a completely different crowd than at Troia. Here we have comfort food, not comfortable seats. I designed the menu for the economy— if you have $7.95, I can give you a plate of pasta.”

Crowds came to Grano seeking some of the same dishes that are on the menu at Troia, and Gino, a consummate host, was embarrassed turning them away. He hopes that happens less often in the new location, which, with its tangerine- and khaki-colored walls and wrought-iron lighting fixtures, looks like a more casual Café Troia.

Standing on the second floor of the building, in a room he plans to use as a group dining room, Gino says he doesn’t often dwell on his life in Italy. “I don’t think of myself as an immigrant,” he says. “We always wanted to amalgamate, to be Americans.” And yet the Troias’ success is due, in part, to their dual identities: as much as the family has embraced the American Dream, opening one small business after another, working hard to make their own success, they’ve held on to the culture and customs— and, above all, the beloved cuisine— of the old country.

Never could the chef for the Duke of Monteleone have imagined that one of his descendants— one of the Troia family of Naples— would own a restaurant selling raw lasagna and raw tiramisu. But raw or cooked, served in Hampden or Towson, the Troias remain a “food family” that loves to cook, eat and feed others.

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