As a child growing up in the Philadelphia area, Paul Vella remembers spending a lot of time in his grandmother's kitchen.
"To keep us entertained, she'd cook," he said.
His grandmother was an immigrant from Malta who came through Ellis Island to make her home in Philadelphia. His grandfather came from Sicily.
It is those roots that Vella draws upon when creating dishes at his Vista restaurant, Paul's Philadelphia Eatery. His goal is to bring a little of his Italian family traditions and his Philadelphia background to Columbia.
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That means authentic Philly cheese steaks, grinders and pizzas, along with homemade soups and other dishes.
The Italian Wedding Soup he makes this day is his great-grandmother's recipe. The seasoned broth filled with chicken and meatballs, carrots and celery, is poured over rice just before it is served. It's a dish that is always served at Italian weddings.
For a side dish, he also is making a fall salad with cranberry vinaigrette. It's topped with blue cheese, walnuts and cinnamon sugar-coated Granny Smith apples.
Vella moved to Charleston in 1995 to attend Johnson and Wales, where he earned an associate's degree in culinary arts. He also has a bachelor's degree in restaurant management. He ended up in Columbia because his wife and business partner, Abigail, is a Columbia native.
While they were considering opening a restaurant, Vella figured Columbians might go for South Philadelphia cuisine, which wasn't represented in the city's dining scene.
Among Philly's stars are cheese steaks made of shaved ribeye cooked on a flat top with Cheese Whiz on top. (Not a Cheese Whiz fan? You can get it with several other types of cheese). The sandwiches are similar to the ones made famous at two South Philly landmarks - Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's.
The rolls for the sandwiches come from a Philadelphia bakery, where they are flash frozen and shipped. He thaws the rolls and crisps them in the oven before turning them into sandwiches.
His Philadelphia-born-and-raised dad, whom Vella calls "a tough critic," always orders a cheese steak when he visits Paul's. "He says these are better," Vella said.
The restaurant also serves pizza, made with a dough recipe that's more than 150 years old. It's hand rolled, not tossed, so it has more of a yeasty flavor, Vella said. Plus you can get it any style from super thick to super thin.