Jessica Shillato, owner of Spotted Salamander Café and Catering in Columbia, South Carolina, grew up with an appreciation for locally grown, farm-fresh ingredients. Although those ingredients deepened her connection with her home in the Palmetto State, the dishes she loves to cook were influenced by her family’s various ties to Poland, New York, and Mississippi. This love for from-the-source foods sparked Shillato’s journey to culinary school and later various positions in restaurants around Charleston.
The itch to open her own business led Shillato back to Columbia, where she launched Spotted Salamander Catering. She designed her concept to highlight whole foods from local farmers and purveyors through creative-meets-down-home dishes, from fried chicken to shrimp to grits and layered coconut cakes. By traveling to farms and connecting with vendors at regional farmers markets, Shillato sourced peak-season produce and other products from independent growers and kept abreast of what they were growing for upcoming seasons.
Having built her reputation as a champion for locally produced ingredients, Shillato was regularly tapped by members of the city to cater receptions for presidential candidates traveling through the state’s capital, showing off the flavors and industry that shaped South Carolina.
After six years of business, Spotted Salamander Catering started its next chapter as a brick-and-mortar space: The Spotted Salamander Café opened doors in the Robert Mills District in 2014. “I realized that there weren’t a whole lot of lunch places that served local, fresh food [at the time], which is what I wanted to do by opening the Spotted Salamander Café in Columbia,” Shillato says.
Her restaurant, located in a 19th-century building, became the conduit for delivering farm-fresh fare from the fields and markets to the plates of hungry South Carolinians. Daily changing presentations of deviled eggs, veggie-packed soups, shrimp salad croissant sandwiches, and desserts like oatmeal cream pies and sweet potato cakes with cinnamon icing celebrate seasonal flavors and have made Spotted Salamander Café a lunchtime staple in Columbia.
A personal favorite of Shillato—and an item she depends on during appetizer hour for catering gigs—is her turnip tops and country ham dip. The warm, creamy dip uses a simple blend of stewed turnip tops, country ham, cream cheese, sour cream, and parmesan, and you can serve it with crackers, crostini, or crunchy vegetables. Shillato loves it for game day parties during football season or when entertaining—simply place it on the bar during cocktail hour and watch people gather around the bubbling dish.
Turnip Tops and Country Ham Dip
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