Five seasons ago, Chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, launched a PBS program that showed them exiting the big lights of New York City and returning to the farmland of Howard’s home in Eastern NC. “A Chef’s Life” follows the two starting a family (with twins), running a fine-dining establishment, Chef and the Farmer, in Kinston, and opening an oyster bar, The Boiler Room. The show has garnered Howard a James Beard and Peabody over the last few years. In 2017 she has even more to celebrate with Chef and Farmer turning a decade old and her cookbook, “Deep Run Roots” celebrating a slot on the New York Times Best Seller list. To add to the pop of the champagne bottle, Howard, Knight and Wilmingtonians alike can cheers the couple’s newest concept and first restaurant to open outside of Kinston, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria.
The 90-to-100-seat eatery opens to the public Tuesday, Dec. 12, and has been in the works since last spring. Howard told encore in an interview Monday that she and Knight picked Wilmington because of its seaboard and touristy location—not to mention it’s only two hours from Kintson.
“We feel like Wilmington is growing, too,” she tells. “It’s a nice place to be and we felt like there’s room in the restaurant scene for us, so it seemed to make sense.”
Benny’s Big Time can’t be missed, as the brick building—located in the Greenfield Lake area, across from Satellite Bar and Lounge and South Front Apartments—has been colored with distinct markings by the hands of local artist Sarah Rushing. Rushing’s mural showcases the best ingredients of a true-blue American-Italian pizza joint—the basis and inspiration for Howard and Knight. They hired Chef Jim Diechio from Charlotte to man the helm. Diechio last worked at Rocksalt and has vast experience in Jose Andres’ restaurant group.
“That’s something we were interested in because we thought they might have great systems in place,” Howard says. “Also, Jim is Italian-American and has a deep love of this food—he was the best fit.”
Though the menu’s pièce de résistance is its 14-inch Neapolitan-style pies, it also focuses on homemade pasta, family-style salads, antipasto, and decadent desserts. Plus, Benny’s will serve a risotto and have a fried section with fun takes on picatta and Parmesans.
“I really like the ‘Talking Shitake,’” Howard says with a giggle. “It has a house-made fennel sausage with shitake mushrooms. I’ve always liked sausage and mushroom pizza, so it’s kind of inspired by that. I also really enjoy the ‘Kevin McCallister,’ which is an adult cheese pizza that has a funky cheese from Virginia called the ‘Grayson’ on it.”
Added to it is a hot honey made in house with calabrian chiles, lemon zest, garlic, and oil. They blend the base and mix it into local honey. “It’s a bright red, very flavorful, sweet-and-spicy drizzle,” Howard tells.
Plus, it’s versatile and will go with practically any Benny’s menu item. Each table has honey bears full of the concoction.
Over the weekend, the restaurant hosted a soft opening and found most raves coming for their riff on chicken Parmesan. Howard has introduced a few Southern tricks into the menu to fuse the two cuisines. Here, the coating reflects traditional Southern fried chicken.
“It sits on top of a stretchy cheese that we make in house,” she adds. “It’s a really creamy, soft, indulgent cheese—so the warm chicken goes on top and melts it a little bit. Then we drizzle the chicken with hot honey (which looks like tomato sauce but it’s not), and we top it with pickled chiles. So you’ve got sweet, tangy, crunchy, and creamy all on one plate; it’s really delicious.”
They’re also doing a take on “chicken and dumplings” but made with Italian-style gnocchi instead. Sardines with collards makes an appearance, too.
Sticking with her mission to source from local famers, as seen on “A Chef’s Life,” Howard is procuring food from Humble Roots Farm, as well as Feast Down East. “There’s a number of other farms I’m sure will be coming to our back door fairly often,” she notes. “We’ve gotten fish locally. Sous chef Carson [Jewell, formally of Rx] has a deep connection to the Wilmington farming community, so he’s been our guide in that respect.”
Cocktails will be aplenty, served in the vein of Italian aperitifs and classic spirits, alongside four to six taps of Wilmington-brewed beer, and mostly Italian wines on tap, served in carafes and half-carafes. “We’re working on developing their voice at the bar,” Howard states. Knight and Andrew Sutton, general manager of The Boiler Room in Kinston, have culled the list. “We enjoy Italian wines,” Howard adds.“We have been serving them for years, so that part of it was not something new.”
Juggling a packed schedule with rearing a family, filming a hit TV show, running three restaurants, and managing sanity will be done with the couple switching off roles. “When I’m in Wilmington, he’ll be in Kinston and vice versa,” Howard tells, “so we have a presence in both places.” And as far as locals seeing camera crews in tow, well, some of the soft opening was filmed. But the future remains unknown; crews follow Howard according to the narrative of the show.
“It won’t be something people see all the time,” she says, “because we don’t film in the restaurants all the time.”
But who knows? Perhaps visiting with one of our local farmers will make the cut.