From left to right: Renee Dallas (co-founder, Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tours), Donna Estudillo, Linda (tour guide), Deanna Durigon (co-founder)

I meet Deanna Durigon at one of her favorite Italian restaurants, Francoli’s Gourmet in Old Towne Orange. Naturally, she’d pick this spot, and not just because she’s Italian American, but she’s also co-founder of Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tours (OTOWFT). In business since 2010, OTOWFT takes foodies and food eaters alike on tours throughout historic Orange, primarily through the city’s vibrant one square-mile historic district containing many of the area’s original structures.

Deanna greets me with a warm smile that makes me feel like we’ve been longtime friends. After a bit of friendly small talk, she dives right into a description of what we’re about to enjoy. She knows her Italian fare, having spent a good 3-4 years in Italy right after college, and she dreams of one day living there on a more permanent basis. I know I’m in for a legit Italian meal.

To start, we have a couple of spritzes (prosecco wine with a dash of a bitter liqueur commonly served in Northeast Italy), and the drinks quickly warm us up to girlfriend chatter. Soon, there’s laughter and talks about past loves, future aspirations, our shared challenges of parenthood, and aging gracefully. I wonder if I really have to write about food for this interview. Deanna is open and friendly so it feels natural to talk about anything. Eventually, our cioppino alla livornese arrives, and as we dig into this tender seafood assortment simmering in a spicy tomato sauce over perfectly cooked al dente linguine, we finally dig into the meaty history of Old Towne Orange and the Walking Food Tours created together with Deanna’s sister, Renee Dallas.

As a frequent visitor, I see Old Towne Orange as a harmonious blend of old and new, vintage and modern, classic and hipster. It offers a centralized hub of restaurants where one is bound to appeal to my current craving, vintage shops where I can find that unique dress that gets me a dozen compliments (at least), my favorite organic juicery for when I’d rather drink than eat my greens, cute little first date coffee shops, with a grassy plaza made for laying out on those mornings after a late night rocking to 80’s hits at one of the Old Towne bars. With new restaurants and businesses popping up all the time (recently opening The Piehole and expect to see Urth Café soon!), it’s a spot that keeps me coming back for more.

The Aussie Bean, a recent addition to Old Towne where a flat white is a must!

Deanna has been a resident of Orange since 1993, a testament to her love for the city, and partly why she is able to drop a ton of knowledge about Orange. Like did you know that Old Towne Orange is the largest historical district in the state of California (it’s on an official government list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects deemed worthy of preservation)? Deanna goes on to explain that this means when any restaurant or other business sets up shop, they have to keep the façade of the building looking original. Another nugget? The building housing Wahoo’s Fish Tacos was the very first structure built in Old Towne and back in the 1800s, it was home to the Vineland Hotel.

Tour guide Linda pulling out an old photo of the Old Towne Orange Plaza fountain

You can live in a city for years and love where you live, but that alone may not motivate you to start a city tour business, right? Right. So, how did the idea of OTOWFT come about? Deanna tells me, “Years ago, I had seen on the Food Network Channel these food tours in Brooklyn. The mother of actress Marisa Tomei actually started these food tours in Brooklyn, and I remember watching it and thinking, ‘Oh my god, the next time I go to Brooklyn, I HAVE to go on one of those tours!’”

She never did make it on a Brooklyn food tour, but eventually she did a walking pizza tour in Chicago. “On the tour, I was really watching the [tour guide] and started thinking I could totally start a food tour business here because I really know the restaurant scene, which is even more now than five years ago. After research, I found a tour in L.A. and a tour in San Diego, but nothing in Orange County. I thought, ‘I can do this!’ So, I called my sister and told her I have this idea and I don’t think I’d ever do it if you don’t do it with me.”

Fortunately, her sister Renee said yes. With Deanna’s 20+ years of experience in food management, a passion for food, and knowing the scene, combined with Renee’s experience in graphic art and communications, along with their shared love for the city of Orange, the business was born. After about three solid months of reviewing other food tour websites, reading through negative and positive reviews, building a website, and lining up routes, they had their very first tour. This coming October will mark its six-year anniversary.

Walking food tour in action

A couple months ago, I grabbed my walking shoes (walking boots, really) and a hungry friend, and with our heartiest appetites, we joined the Orange Sampler Tour, one of the three tours offered by OTOWFT. Without revealing all the juicy little deets and what we learned on th

e tour (because you’ve really gotta experience it for yourself!), allow me to drop a few pearls:

1. You will be fed well.

2. That bowl of soup at Felix Continental Café? It’s not soup.

3. During the holidays, Old Towne Orange may or may not be one of the best places to kidnap baby Jesus.

4. There’s a bread guy—the bread guy-at the farmer’s market you can’t miss. He bakes all the bread for the best restaurants in Orange County (and he knows all the best restaurant spots and chefs and will divulge upon inquiry.)

Cliff Notes version: On one or all of their three main walking tours, expect food tastings, a history lesson, behind-the-scenes action, shopping opportunities, cooking demos, and possibly some catchy jingles performed by your friendly tour guide. Did I mention food tastings?

So, Deanna and I top off our authentic Italian dinner with, of course, an authentic Italian dessert (tiramisu!) and talk about what makes the city of Orange so sweet in Deanna’s eyes: “It’s very community-driven. What’s old is new again…Young families are coming to live in Orange because they find the community, and one special thing is the farmer’s market—an amazing group of people started it and they really brought that old town community feeling to Old Towne Orange. There’s also going to be a new education farm where the community is going to learn how to grow vegetables and plant compost – a collaboration with Chapman University [also located in Old Towne] – tying the community together again.”

And with Old Towne Orange, that’s amore – even more than ever before. So, go on now, book your tour, guys. It’s easy—www.oldtownorangewalkingfoodtours.com. You’ll thank me later.

P.S. And thank you, Deanna, for sharing your knowledge and love for your town, and for the wonderful dinner. I hope to bump into you in the city soon! Maybe one day you’ll expand your four-woman group (WWHEW: Women Who Eat Well) to a fiver.

Donna Estudillo

Donna Estudillo

RN and associate program director for a non-profit charity, plus mom who's working on being the hardest spiritual gangsta around, living the YOLO life and enjoying mishaps along the way. Current vibes: only positive ones -- which have led to her blog (www.AmI40yet.com). "Am I 40 Yet?" is an idea conceived after turmoil, inspired by a determination to get her sh*t together, and launched at the start of her 38th year. She writes, she learns, she shares…and hopefully, she entertains and inspires.
Donna Estudillo

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