ToquiNotes: As Area Loses Italian Restaurant Jewel, Italian Festival Offers Hint at Region's Top-End Cuisine

By Jeff Toquinto on September 02, 2023 from ToquiNotes via

I was reminded Wednesday just how lucky we folks here in North Central West Virginia in general and Harrison County in particular have it – at least when it comes to high-end Italian food. The reminder, unfortunately, came regarding the closure this week of Raymon’s Restaurant & Catering.
If there is a crown of Italian restaurants that symbolize this county, this region, Raymon’s was a crown on it. The truly said irony of the closing is that it came days before the 44th West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival got underway Friday and will continue until Sunday at 6 p.m.
The festival is known for its entertainment, its family atmosphere, the annual parade, and so much more. When you get right down to it for an old Italian like me, a lot of it comes down to the food. Sure, you’re going to pay more for food at a festival, but the atmosphere with friends, a cold beverage, and music blaring in the background make for the perfect combination of all that is right with food right here in our area.
My neighbor and friend, Johnny Joe Madia, is one of the biggest food vendors at the Italian Festival and is located just to the right of the Harrison County Courthouse stage. If you do not know the name, you may know the name of his business – The Big Kahuna.
Typically, you see him in his food truck. Through today and tomorrow, you will see him under tents with a work crew dealing out sandwiches, tomato salad, and more to thousands. Thousands, barring weather going sour, is not hyperbole.
You will also see a presence from Minard’s Spaghetti Inn. Like Raymon’s, they have a deserving jewel on the crown of Italian food in our area. If you’re looking for old-school Italian food that is authentic as the family name, you need to hit up Minard’s at the festival or in person on the outskirts of Clarksburg.
The Bluebird Store always has a few booths out front serving Italian food as well as fritti’s. The store, now operated by Eric Leaseburg and family, has been a staple of downtown Clarksburg for decades dating back to its location on Third Street and operated by the Lopez family until its move to Main Street.
One thing has remained consistent, and that is quality food. And if you are wanting some good Italian meats, cheeses, and high-end sausage, they got you covered there as well.
While I will get back to the food portion of Italian cuisine here in a few paragraphs, be sure and do yourself a favor and visit Torchia's Italian Pastries under the care of Ranee Torchia. You want Italian pastries that will make your mouth drool? She has them in every form you can imagine.
If there is a line at her booth at the festival, be sure and wait. It is worth it. Also, if you ever have a chance to order a jelly-filled cake – as a personal favor to my readers – place one sooner rather than later (and save me a piece).
While I was unable to secure a list of all the Italian food vendors or all the vendors for the festival (go up, and see what’s cooking), I do want to go back to a few more reasons why I know we are blessed with high-end Italian cooking here locally that has been around for a long, long time. It goes back to my mother living in Florida after she remarried.
Back in the early 1990s, as I began regular trips to Cocoa and Cocoa Beach, eating out became more mandatory than options. Usually, that meant seafood. Since mom and her husband Jim picked up the tab more often than not, if they had a suggestion, we would take them up on it.
One night, a group went to Carrabba's Italian Grill to get the “best Italian food around.” While the food was good and the experience was far from unpleasant, I was expecting – as with the seafood restaurants – to be blown away by the food. Perhaps, my thinking at the time, was because it was a chain restaurant.
With that in mind, a few years later Italian was brought up again. I suggested the best local place available. The choice was a place in nearby Titusville called The Italian Fisherman, which has since closed according to our friends on the internet.
The food? Good. The experience. Not too bad. Compared to what I got back at home? Honestly, it was not close. About the only thing I found along the space coast – and I admittedly did not go back to looking for quality Italian which I am sure does exist – that could match up were several pizza shops over my two decades of visits up and down the Space Coast.
Maybe I am biased, but I like good food no matter where it served, and I will put this region up per capita in Italian Restaurants with anyone. Bridgeport has two of the oldest gems in the Harrison County crown in Oliverio’s Ristorante and Twin Oaks.
Looking for a place besides Minard’s in Clarksburg that has some quality pasta dishes? Try The Caboose, which has maintained the quality of the former owners (the Arco family) and jazzed things up a bit. And don’t sleep on The Wonder Bar’s Italian dishes. I just wish, and maybe it has been reintroduced, would put the veal parmigiana back on the menu.
Since I mentioned “region” at the start, I have to add another favorite. Muriale’s in Fairmont has never once let me down. Under former owner Rocco Muriale, and under current owner and Bridgeport resident Scott Duarte, it is an Italian food treasure.
Until recently, when I started visiting my daughter Jordan in Boston, I was not sure if I could find anything Italian that I would consider a “must stop” on a visit. That changed in their “Little Italy” on the North End. As solid a restaurant lineup as you can find and if in Beantown, hit up Trattoria Il Panino. You can thank me later.
While I know there are plenty of good Italian restaurants in other cities, including both big and large, I will put us up against anyone. Have a sample of it today or Sunday in downtown Clarksburg and patronize those mentioned here and those not mentioned.
And if you have any leftovers, you know where to find me. Mangia.
Editor's Note: Top photo shows Johnny Joe Madia with Italian Festival Royalty enjoying a little Big Kahuna cuisine, while the second photo is a dish of Minard's lasagne, which will be available today and Sunday at the Italian Festival. The third photo, from 1994, shows brothers Mike and John Lopez, from left to right, with some homemade Italian sausage at the time their family was running the Bluebird Store. Bottom photo shows Ranee Torchia, red shirt, with friends and family manning her booth at the Festival.

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