In Western North Carolina, the couple behind Ilda, a small-town restaurant with deep roots, celebrates the best of their hyperlocal and international origins.
The central district of Sylva, North Carolina, stretches just a few he blocks, framed by the picturesque peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains. Amongst the businesses that serve the 2,500 or so year-round residents, there are a handful of breweries, bicycle and mountain gear shops, a general store, and, at the intersection of the main thoroughfare, an inspired Italian restaurant named Ilda.
Though Ilda is still fairly new in town, its roots run deep. Locals once knew the building as Meatballs, a beloved classic Italian joint that was open from the early 1980s into the ’90s and run by a feisty Sicilian from New Jersey named Karen Martar. Set in a former 1950s-era gas station, the space oozed comfort and charm, thanks to Martar’s passionate personality and to personal touches, such as the ornate stained-glass windows designed by Martar’s husband, local artist Bob Pace. An etching in the concrete sidewalk outside still marks the original restaurant’s name and opening date (1983), and those windows still frame the dining room, now occupied by Ilda.
Today, it’s Martar’s stepdaughter, Crystal Pace, and her husband, Santiago Guzzetti, who are carrying the torch within the storied dining room.
“I grew up coming here as a kid, and it was everything you can imagine an Italian spot in the ’90s to be,” Pace says. “I mean it was calzones and guys with ties on, everyone smoking—that always left an impression with me,” she adds. “We really wanted to pay homage to that, and to Karen.”
Like a lot of small towners, Pace grew up, left her hometown, and landed in New York to work in hospitality. She gravitated toward wine education and met Guzzetti, a chef, while working at the Baccarat Hotel.
Guzzetti grew up in Argentina but with a strong Sicilian heritage: Where his grandparents were from—in Córdoba, where he was raised—the largest ethnic group is Italian. His cooking often blends Italian and Argentinian techniques. “Growing up, it was Argentinian but very Italian,” Guzzetti says. “So, if someone said, ‘We’re having a barbecue,’ or an asado, it was always the asado and plates of pasta. To me, that was tradition.”
The couple thought about opening a restaurant in Brooklyn together, and invited a third partner, Antoine Hodge, who has expertise in bartending and front-of-house hospitality—but financially, the three weren’t able to pull it off. So, knowing that New York wasn’t their forever home, in 2019, Guzzetti and Pace made the decision to purchase the former Meatballs space. They moved back to Sylva in early 2020—and shortly after, Covid-19 derailed their loan and their plans.
Instead, they ran a few pop-ups in and around Asheville and in May 2020 had the opportunity to partner with the business next to their building, the Wine Bar & Cellar, where Pace pours wines by the glass and has instituted a wine club and Guzzetti puts out a menu of small plates.
They convinced Hodge to move down to North Carolina and join the team. They slowly got to know their community of locals, as well as the many mountain-bound tourists who pass through town. Throughout the slow winter months, they ran theme nights—everything from Hawaiian to Japanese to drag shows—which drew enough buzz to bring a line out the door.
Meanwhile, their loan was eventually reinstated, and the couple got to work revamping the space that would become Ilda. (Pace gave birth to their baby boy along the way.) After a gut renovation and revamp, Ilda opened in April 2021, reclaiming the original space’s comforting energy with updated woodwork and furnishings, a sturdy bar made from wormy chestnut, and touches of countryside-Italian charm—a space that would feel equally at home in the West Village of New York as it does in a small Southern mountain town.
Named for Guzzetti’s Sicilian nonna, Ilda combines his Southern Italian heritage, Pace’s Appalachian roots, the couple’s shared love of New York dining culture, and Hodge’s welcoming spirit. The menu leans heavily on Italian dishes, but Guzzetti’s appreciation for his environment dictates what lands on the menu.
“Ever since coming here, I could see just how much grows right around us and how these ingredients could go with European techniques,” he says. From the region’s prized candy roaster squash to North Carolina’s delectable country hams (which Guzzetti argues rival those found in Europe) to a bounty of local cheeses, Guzzetti saw strong connections between Appalachian and Italian ingredients—he honors that on the plate, folding locally foraged mushrooms into a creamy risotto or draping country ham over gnoccho frito, a fried pasta.
It’s resonating with locals, too. On any given day or night, both Ilda and the Wine Bar are filled with regulars who have cheered for the couple’s success along the way. “We’ve really had the support of the community, so we like to come up with creative ways to engage everyone,” Pace says.
With the restaurant being an extension of their family, Guzzetti and Pace often gather staff members for family meal each Sunday and during the holidays. Many of those who work alongside them have become like family, thanks to the combination of it being a small town and there being an influx of others like them who have relocated here from points north. Much like a dinner service at Ilda, celebratory meals involve a shared table, usually covered in family-style dishes that speak to the couple’s heritage—whole roasted lamb drizzled with pesto, polenta smothered in eggplant caponata, and squash cavatelli nestled in tomato confit.
“It’s really a way for us to celebrate our staff and to share all that we’re working for here,” Pace says.
A Holiday Menu From Ilda
Gnoccho Frito with Shaved Country Ham
Charred Baby Beets with Goat Cheese and Honey
Creamy Polenta with Eggplant Caponata
Squash Cavatelli with Tomato Confit and Pecorino
Visitors Can Find Their Beat in Greenwood, Mississippi
The Story Behind the Kentucky Hot Brownby Erin Byers Murray
Meet Chef Jessica Shillato | Video
The Slutty Vegan Cookbook: Eat Plants, B*tchby Emily Havener
Elvis’ Birthplace and More in Tupelo, Mississippi
More From At the Table
Louisa Shafia’s Nowruz Menu
Mardi Gras Means King Cake
Super Bowl Beer and Food Pairings That Beat the Halftime Show
Turning Food Waste Into a Feast
Cook the Book: Gullah Geechee Home Cooking