In nearly all of the glowing online reviews of Vinny’s Taste of Italy in Chester,  the restaurant’s exterior is dismissed as minimal, nondescript or plain “not fancy.” But none of those adjectives can still be applied to the former gas station, since owner Vincenzo Lombardo recently tore out the old pumps and overhead canopy, creating a canvas for a fountain inspired by the medieval masterpieces fastened to Rome’s Piazza Navona.

Now, guests with reservations — and only guests with reservations, since Lombardo strictly forbids walk-in traffic — walk past a concrete hexadecagon, filled by water that spills through the mouths of lions. A tall brick column at the fountain’s center is crowned by an urn.

“Ever so often, I bring things to remind me more of Italy,” says Lombardo, who built the new landmark by hand.

Lombardo has lived in Chester County for 30 years, staving off homesickness with accordion music and frequent trips to see his siblings. Yet like the many voluntary South Carolinians drawn to the state by love, money or the sun, he hasn’t been able to entirely shake his culinary allegiance to his hometown, a tiny Sicilian town that annually bloats with millions of beachgoers.

South Carolina has emerged as a national leader in net domestic migration, with only five states taking in more relocated Americans: In a 12-month period ending last July, 64,547 people moved to South Carolina. And like Lombardo, they brought their flavor longings with them, spurring restaurant themes and menu items. In Charleston County, where a disproportionate number of residents come from New York or New Jersey, 2017 saw the launch of at least two Sunday morning Jewish deli pop-ups.

While it’s unclear whether their opinions are shaped by the chefs’ passions or the transplants and travelers’ nostalgia, eaters tend to be adoring of these outposts. As frequently as online critics pity Taste of Italy’s modest appearance, they contend it’s the best Italian restaurant in the Southeast.

“People come to this place and say, ‘Oh, Vinny, I have been in Siena’; ‘Oh Vinny, I have been in Rome’,” Lombardo says. “It’s a punchline for people who have associations.”

Life on the plate

Born in Cefalu, Lombardo started his food career at age 8, when he had a bicycle and a delivery route. As a teenager, he began working in resort kitchens, cooking at ski slopes in the winter and by the sea in the summertime. Lombardo turned 18 in 1986, when every male Italian was still required to enlist: Because of his work history, he was assigned to a military mess.

After leaving the service, Lombardo signed on with a series of cruise ships. He was carving a roast on a Disney lido deck buffet line when he met a family from Chester. Those passengers filled out a comment card at the end of their trip, making sure to leave contact information for their favorite on-board chef. Lombardo, who hadn’t seen any of the U.S. beyond his boats’ Florida ports, started vacationing in the South Carolina Piedmont.

“My cruise ship was bigger than Chester,” he says. “Nothing. Literally, there was nothing.”

Still, Lombardo decided to stay. He married “the young lady passenger,” Freda, in 1989. Today, she teaches Spanish during the day, and works at Taste of Italy at night.

What was life like during those early years? Don’t ask Lombardo, who is notoriously reticent on every subject except the natural and architectural glories of Italy. He’d rather let his cooking speak for him.

“I don’t want to share nothing,” he says. “I don’t want to share ingredients. Let me put my life on the plate.”

From the get-go, that has meant dishes of Lombardo’s own invention, such as Involtini Freda, a stuffed chicken-and-artichoke pasta homage to his South Carolinian muse. “It’s two lasagna noodles; filled in with ingredients and rolled up, like a lying Tower of Pisa.” His edible autobiography has also included iconic Sicilian dishes, such as pasta alla Norma, arancini and homemade limoncello.

“I have cooked a bunch of personal dishes, but I get two responses,” Lombardo says. “First response: 'Vinny, this is so delicious. What is it?' Second response: 'I don’t know what it is, but it sure is good.' Either way, they never tasted it before, but they trust me.”

Journey to Italy

Prior to Lombardo opening Taste of Italy, diners in the area didn’t think much about trust in the restaurant realm: They counted on prep cooks to wash their hands, owners expected them to pay, and that was as far as faith went. Subtly, though, Lombardo asked more of his customers.

For example, Lombardo requires reservations, even though he could probably fill the room with walk-ins on a Friday or Saturday night (with the exception of birthdays, weeknight restaurant-going hasn’t yet caught on in Chester.) That’s partly for planning purposes, but it’s also a signal to guests that they should block out time for the experience.

“I try to school them, it’s not a pub or a club or a beer joint,” he says. “They should come in here to unwind.”

A few diners can’t be taught, Lombardo says. “People, if they don’t like garlic, how do you say: You can take a horse to water?” But after decades of making spaghetti aglio e olio, pesto and bruschetta for his neighbors, the perennially aproned Lombardo has acquired a cadre of loyal diners who stage their supper club meetings and pre-football get-togethers at Lombardo’s tables.

There are about two dozen tables at Taste of Italy, each covered with a rich red patterned tablecloth, and set with potted plants and matching linen napkins folded into fans. All around the room, there are framed photographs of Italy and sketches of Italian food, hollow columns draped with artificial vines and, behind the counter where Lombardo cooks, a television usually tuned to Fox News.

As for the food, it’s relatively simple and served in large portions. Dinner might feature a bright Caesar salad with broken sesame breadsticks, a mild penne arrabiata and scrunched-up shrimp in cream sauce. “Noodles are noodles,” Lombardo says. “I have a fascination with sauces.” For Lombardo’s “best and wonderful customers,” it’s transportive every time.

Once, a devoted fan came from Charleston, ordering a glass of wine to accompany the complimentary caprese that’s placed on every table. He had to kill time while waiting for his wife, who, as he calmly explained to Lombardo, hadn’t yet left the house, 176 miles away.

Soon, Taste of Vinny’s will gain one more Italian element: Lombardo is building a wood-fired pizza oven between meals.

“I could sell fried chicken and collards, and I would have customers,” he says. “But it’s a homey Italian situation. Even though I’m here, I have Italy to share.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

Food editor and chief critic

Eating all of the chicken livers just as fast as I can.