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WORLD OF FLAVOR: Benny’s Big Time ups the Italian game in ILM

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Other than a few minor misses, Benny’s Big Time was worth every moment of the wait.

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Unfamiliar with the term? Think glorified bacon that has been blessed by a wizard, tucked into a wish, and wrapped in a rainbow. At least that’s the technical culinary definition for it. Another explanation: super-succulent pork meat from the jowl. But diners don’t need to be proficient in pig to eat at Vivian Howard’s new gem of a restaurant, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria. Just come hungry. She’ll do the rest.

Photos by Tom Dorgan.

Serious food fanatics out there are likely well-versed in Chef Howard’s “Deep Run Roots.” And I’m not just talking about her award-winning cookbook or popular PBS show, “A Chef’s Life.” Since opening her immensely successful Kinston, North Carolina-based regionally refined restaurant, Chef & the Farmer (and its more casual, hip younger cousin Boiler Room Oyster Bar), Vivian Howard has become a household name. Lucky for Wilmingtonians—of all the thriving food meccas to choose from to welcome her newest venture—she landed smack dab on Greenfield Street beside Satellite.
Before we even dig into the food, let’s talk first impressions. After one step through the doors, I immediately was whisked out of Wilmington (in a good way). The ambience is different from practically every other establishment in the Port City, in that it’s not “trying” to be something specific.

It’s not a gastropub, a New York lounge, a fine-dining restaurant, a Southern café, etc. Benny’s has a personality all its own. Although, it captures a city vibe with its exposed brick and dark wood tables, it still delivers a spot-on urban, small neighborhood feel, with quirky, colorful food murals (thanks to local artist Sarah Rushing) and vibrant accent walls. The spacious, wrap-around white marble bar (first come, first served) helps set the mood for the dynamic dining room, and their multi-colored Tiffany glass lamps pay tribute to a hip, vintage energy. Every element of Benny’s atmosphere harmoniously comes together to create a lively, comfortable space that’s not easy to find in a smaller town that is just becoming known for its food scene.

My eating buddies and I arrived on a Saturday evening appropriately thirsty for some pre-dinner spirits (as we knew the wait would be extensive). We were right—but not at all disappointed. Benny’s is a highly anticipated, brand-new restaurant opened by a well-known chef. On a weekend night, always plan on meandering to Satellite for a few brews until a table opens. I planned my pizza partners accordingly, as to make sure everyone could give a diverse, unique critique. We had a true foodie, a not-so-picky Italian-food lover and a 20-something who had no idea who Vivian Howard was.

An hour-and-a-half later, we were off to the races. Our server told us the sardines were a standout dish; although, I’m slightly opposed to strong fishy fish, it felt worth the gamble here.

The presentation was brilliant: Two generously sized whole sardines lay on a bed of braised collards, licorice-y fennel rounds, salty capers, and tart lemon. At our request, our server deboned and filleted the fish tableside. The two of us who prefer our seafood milder were not exactly enchanted by the strong aroma and super-salty taste. Our third dining patron ate every last bite—and he’s typically not a fan of fennel or capers. Sardine lovers or adventurous dining types who like something briny and pungent can rest assured Vivian Howard is the chef to make all your dreams come true.

The fritto misto went over without a hitch—and, well, why would I spend time with people who don’t like fried food? The description of the breaded ocean fare certainly didn’t do it justice. The tender calamari, oysters, catfish, and shrimp were all lightly coated and delicately cooked. However, the fried lemons stole the show. These small, paper-thin rounds of citrus were bursting with sweet, slightly tart flavor and complemented the salty, crispy crunchiness. A swipe through the bright “Big Time” aioli made every bite addictive and surprisingly light.

Next up for splitting: bucatini all’amatriciana, a thick, spaghetti-like pasta, with a hole running through the middle and tossed in an exotic tomatoe-y sauce with guanciale (cured pork cheek), sharp pecorino, and red pepper flakes. Its smell alone was enough to send me into a food coma, but one bite and I was practically put into a dream-trance. We all raved over the richness, but the one (sole) agreed-upon complaint was the undercooked pasta. Each homemade strand had much more of a snap than a perfectly cooked al dente noodle, which is traditionally described as having a “bite.” The sauce was so gorgeously acidic and unctuous, despite the underdone bucatini, we all cleaned our plates.

Although the Kevin McCallister pizza seemed one of the more modest of the pies, Vivian had me at taleggio. Heads up: The online menu lists the pizza’s cheese as “Grayson” while the restaurant menu states “taleggio.” For our purpose here, the two are synonymous. Grayson hails from a Virginia dairy farm and, just like Italian taleggio, is a classic example of a silky, earthy, slightly funky washed rind cheese. Everyone has heard the hype about the hot honey (Benny’s signature sweet-and-spicy syrup you could eat off a shoe), but the pizza was equally as notable for its cheese. The top of the pie had nice bubbles and an exterior charring, but the bottom was doughy. We hoped it was an honest mistake of a very new, very busy kitchen, but I later read about similar quarrels.

We finished the meal with sweet-potato zeppole. The floral orange-blossom glaze and crackly spiced sugar exterior were divine, and one dunk into the espresso-drowned ice cream. We left OMG-ing left and right!

Other than a few minor misses, Benny’s was worth every moment of the wait.

Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria
206 Greenfield St.
(910) 550-2525
Tue.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Closed Mon.

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