Benny DiPietro is nearing his 80th birthday. His restaurant is in its 26th year. And they're both doing exceedingly well.
Finding the next hot table or the trend that sparks it defines a lot of writing about restaurants. Often, veterans may not be revisited for a long time. Many, of course, change dramatically and quickly.
Benny's hasn't. It earned four stars in 1995 and deserves them today, too.
One of the reasons is Benny himself. As he has been since opening day, Benny is equal parts restaurateur and raconteur, overseer and inspector. He's an eyes-everywhere host.
If he's not in the dining room, it's likely that he's in the kitchen, where Jose Sorto has been executive chef for three years and has cooked for more than 20.
The comfortable dining area has a lived-in feel. Fans might say it has developed a patina, in yellow-gold with green accents. Others may argue that it ought to be refreshed or updated. But you won't be contemplating appointments very long.
Instead, twirl bucatini con le sarde, an outstanding version of the Sicilian classic, made with sardines, pine nuts, raisins and fennel from Benny's garden, under a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs. Veer toward Rome, with a delicious rendition of fettuccine alla carbonara, here flecked with speck and sweet onion; or head north, with creamy mushroom risotto. Linguine with clams takes a playful, surf-and-turf approach with nuggets of sweet sausage.
Airy gnocchi accompany a savory, tender, zeppelin-size beef braciola in brown sauce. The juicy, double-cut pork chop with hot peppers, mushrooms and roasted potatoes also is terrific, a production that balances rustic and refined. Seaside, there's expertly seasoned cod Livornese; and, for the modernist, grilled tuna with pineapple-and-tomato salsa.
Try eggplant alla Benny, a wry, deconstructed, flavorful spin on eggplant rollatine and eggplant parm with pasta, in which the cylinders are stuffed with capellini and goat-cheese ricotta. Equally solid starters: grilled polenta, under a mantle of oyster mushrooms and melted Gorgonzola cheese; model baked clams oreganata; and a vivid spiedino alla Romana, the fried union of mozzarella and bread surrounded by caper-and-anchovy sauce.
For dessert, consider consummate cannoli and tiramisu; superior zabaglione on berries; and a delectable Italian cheesecake from Signora DiPietro's recipe. Her biscotti also stand out.
At meal's end, you may be offered a glass of house-made limoncello, the lemon liqueur. Enjoy it.
And, after all these years, toast Benny's once more.