Fine Food in the Frat
- By Jules Older
Across more than twenty years, Villa Tragara in Waterbury built a strong following among Vermonters and tourists with a love for exquisite Italian cuisine from the kitchen of chef/owner Antonino Di Ruocco. But life, like the restaurant business, is seldom a straight or easy path. In 2001, Di Ruocco and his wife sold the business and divorced. Three years later, the chef faced a “six months to live” cancer diagnosis.
But Di Ruocco, a native of Capri, Italy, endured. He credits it to three things: Giving up smoking, excellent medical intervention, and the helpful and supporting care of his mother-in-law and his ex-wife, Tish. “Even though we are divorced, Tish is the love of my life,” he says.
After all he’d been through, the question was what was next for an aging chef-owner with a southern Italian accent in northern Vermont? Become a line cook? A sous chef? A waiter? All extremely physically demanding.
Then, in March 2009, a friend spotted an ad on Craigslist — Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity at UVM looking for a cook. Di Ruocco applied and was deemed overqualified. Seriously overqualified. Somebody else got the position, but didn’t work out. In September, the ad went in again. Di Ruocco applied again. “This time they called me for an interview. I brought two desserts, a Torta Caprese (a flourless chocolate cake), and a lemon Tiramisu.”
So it is that Di Ruocco is alive and well and cooking in an unlikely place for a man with his chops—the kitchen of AGR fraternity on South Prospect Street. There's little doubt, the brothers now enjoy the best food on campus — perhaps on any campus. Alumni regularly drop by at lunch or dinnertime. Students have gone from fast-foodies to real foodies, with palates to match. The fraternity hosts special events, seasonal events, charity events. (See details on an April 12 fundraiser dinner at the end of this article.)
After cooking lunch for the house earlier in the day, dinner prep typically starts around 3 p.m., Di Ruocco says. By six o’clock, he rings the dinner bell over the sink. If he has extra money in his budget, he’ll do something special. On a recent week that meant a large pan of clams and mussels for linguini in clam sauce… to augment the roast pork in mushroom sauce. He’ll also cook up favorites from recipes the fraternity brothers bring from home — chicken pot pie, Mexican food, he even succumbed to a request for boxed macaroni and cheese garnished with Spam. “Never again,” he says.
Dinner done, the brothers take care of the dishes and cleaning the kitchen as Di Ruocco heads home. They’ve officially made him a fraternity brother and he sits down with them for their wide-ranging Monday house meetings. The chef brings both fine food and wise counsel to AGR.
Di Ruocco recalls a favorite moment. “Two years ago, a Russian boy, Dimitri, comes down to the kitchen and says, “Tony I've lost ten pounds.”
“Oh no,” I say. “Is there something wrong with the food?”
“No,” he tells me. “Before you came, we ate out and ate junk food. Now, because your food is so healthy and so natural, I'm in better shape.”
Here’s Joe Pappas, a sophomore from Bolton, Massachusetts: “Tony's food is the best we've ever had. He teaches us about good food through his cooking. And he also strives for us to be better at what we do—he's an influence in that way too.”
Alumni advisor Ron Paquette ’83 echoes Pappas. “Tony continues to cook incredible meals and instills the values of caring, friendship and responsibility. The brothers are so fortunate and blessed to have him.”
The community can get a taste of what the Alpha Gamma Rho brothers are enjoying when the fraternity hosts an April 12 benefit dinner for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. There will be two seatings, at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., for the five-course dinner. Cost is $60 per person. To make a reservation, email email@example.com or call (603) 498-7448.