Liz Farrell

Farrell: Hilton Head Island restaurant owners help keep Italian-Americans fed and happy

Growing up in Romania, Flora Raiac learned to live with very little.

"We could not wait for Easter to get sandals," she said, "and Christmas to get boots."

There was one TV in her neighborhood. On Saturdays, if there was electricity, people would ask if they could bring a chair to the TV owner's home so they could watch together.

For one hour a week, a radio station would play American music.

Flora made sure to listen.

"Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, these are my favorite guitarists," she said. "My only English words (when I came to the United States) were 'Monday, Monday.'"

After she was married, she moved to her in-laws' home. Whenever she used their outhouse she had to bring a broom with her to fend off a yard rooster that took a particular interest in her.

"People said to my husband's family, 'You have a good daughter-in-law. She comes home from work every day and starts cleaning,'" she told me. "Because they see me with the broom all the time."

Her husband of 40 years, Branco, was at the stove. He stopped what he was doing and laughed loudly at the memory. "They didn't know she was defending herself!"

Not that the neighbors' assessment was far off. Flora does like to clean.

"When I die I want to be buried with my vacuum," she said.

"We get Krazy Glue," Branco laughed, mimicking a vacuum cleaner stuck in his wife's hand.

I hung out with the Raiacs on Thursday morning at the Hilton Head Island restaurant they've owned for 12 years, Flora's Italian Cafe.

Branco is the chef. Flora is the dessert-maker ... and also the boss.

"They call me 'The Gestapo,'" she said during my tour of their dust-free restaurant with "the cleanest bathrooms on Hilton Head."

"I get my dishwasher serviced once a month," she said. "It's so clean, they don't believe we use it."

The Raiacs are members of the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island, even though neither is Italian, both are from Romania, and Branco is Serbian.

Every week Branco cooks lunch for their fellow members at the club's regular -- and boisterous -- business meeting. The club raises money for local charities and provides a number of annual scholarships.

"There's a time when you have to give back. You can't take, take, take and not give back," Branco said.

"We help them however we can," Flora said as she prepared the dining room for the 20 expected lunch guests.

The Raiacs are straight out of the American Dream book. They are proof that hard work pays off. That there are no shortcuts -- that thoroughly and correctly are the only ways to get a job done.

They are proof that going above and beyond is what it takes to run a successful business -- even if it means staying after dinner service to make tiramisu at 1 a.m. with four Canadian tourists who really, really want to take home a tray of it.

"Everyone wants pre-sliced, pre-cut," said Branco, who is mostly made of shoulder and well-developed forearm, as he prepared cabbages to be boiled in salted water and vinegar in their immaculate and organized kitchen. "Lazy. Lazy chefs."

He has been cooking in kitchens since he was 14 years old, when he had to learn to cut 50-pound bags of onions with his eyes closed to avoid the burn -- when he would get a swift kick in the rear to remind him he wasn't done cutting yet.

Flora's Italian Cafe is the second restaurant he and his wife have owned. In New Jersey, where they lived before moving to Bluffton, they ran a successful restaurant called Villa Romangna.

Branco is 62 now but has no notion of leaving the kitchen.

He grows his own herbs, pickles his own figs, makes his own prosciutto -- marking "ham" on a calendar that hangs by Flora's dessert station so he knows when to flip it -- and he wants to keep challenging himself as a chef.

"To retire and do what? If I slow down, what I'm going to do?"

"Drive me crazy," Flora finished for him and laughed.

The Raiacs have a loyal staff and loyal customers, residents and visitors who bring them gifts from their travels and who ask to be called whenever Hungarian goulash or stuffed cabbage appear as specials.

On Thursday, Flora had between 30 and 40 calls to make.

"I don't email," she said, shaking her head at the thought of how impersonal that would be.

They have two sons, Franco and Branco.

"What?" Flora said when Branco Sr. looked at her to explain the rhyming.

When Franco was born in 1978, Flora was certain she was going to have a girl, whom she would name Bianca.

"They ask me what his name is. I say 'Franco' because my favorite Italian actor is Franco Nero."

Branco Jr. works at his parents' restaurant.

"He's a great chef," Flora said. "And he's a great cleaner ... I taught him well."

Branco Sr. spent the morning preparing the components of the three specials for the club meeting -- grilled chicken over caesar salad, pasta matriciana made with homemade Romanian sausage and fish cakes with a creamy dill sauce.

At 10:30 a.m., John DeCecco, the president of the Italian-American club, called to let Flora know there would now be 32 for lunch.

Waitress Alina Sidyelnyk, who lives in Bluffton but is originally from Ukraine, immediately began setting up a second table of 12.

She has worked for the Raiacs for five years.

"I'm their neighbor. I can't even call in sick," she joked.

Club members began arriving at noon. Some came in the kitchen to say hi.

By 12:30 p.m., Flora had taken their orders. By 12:31 p.m. she and her husband were performing their well-rehearsed ballet, moving efficiently and quickly to get food plated and served.

No move was wasted. Nor was a single piece of penne.

"There are 41 now," Flora told me, nine more than DeCecco had said were coming.

"They use Italian math," Branco laughed as Sidyelnyk began taking out the fish dishes. Branco counted them. "Alina, let me know. Do you need one more fish?"

"No," she said. "I don't."

"Ah, now I'm using Russian math," he laughed again.

After the tables were cleared and coffee served, the Italian-American in charge of paying came into the kitchen to settle the bill.

In a way that made me positively giddy.

He leaned in to Flora and quietly handed her a 4-inch folded-over wad of cash.

"Thanks," she called out as he left the kitchen and I laughed. "Now I can go to the bar ... or the Diamond Club."

Follow columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell and facebook.com/elizfarrell.

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