In 2004, David Benstock was enrolled in Florida State University studying business when he realized he missed the kitchen. He'd been working in them since he was an adolescent growing up in Seminole. So he abandoned the idea of continuing in the family uniform manufacturing business and enrolled in cooking school in Denver.
After graduating and working in Colorado, New York, Italy, Miami and Tampa, he opened his own place, Il Ritorno on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, in 2013.
"It's modern Italian," said Benstock, who is 30 and usually rides his longboard to work, four blocks from his home. "No old-school dishes, but all the flavors and techniques you find in Italian cuisine."
Benstock is friendly, funny and passionate about cooking and food. He and wife Erica opened the restaurant 2 1/2 years ago, while she was pregnant with their first child.
"She stood there seating people the whole time, until the day before she delivered," he said. "Customers were always asking about the baby."
We talked to Benstock about running the business, what he cooks at home and what he thinks of the Tampa Bay food scene.
You describe the food at Il Ritorno as "No old-school dishes." What exactly do you mean?
Ours is a different spin on Italian, influenced by where I've worked and what I learned at those places. It's lighter than what you'll find in most Italian restaurants. There's shrimp in a lemongrass broth with lime zest and pickled razor clams. No spaghetti and meatballs or heavy cream sauces. If people come in looking for that and find it's not on the menu, they usually just leave.
How involved are you in the business?
I'm involved in everything from cooking, typing up menus, handling social media and paying the bills to painting and repairs, washing dishes. I even do a little electrical. I usually come in between 7 and 8 a.m., leave around 11 p.m. When I'm not here I have FOMO. (Editor's note: That's 30-year-old speak for "Fear of missing out.") We had to go out of town for a weekend wedding and all I did was wonder what was going on at the restaurant.
Do you cook at home?
Yes. But my day off is Sunday. That's when Erica likes to cook.
What's on the menu at home?
Usually some kind of pasta with garlic, vegetables, lemon. We eat more of that than anything.
Do you have an elaborate kitchen at home?
It's a cook's kitchen, on a budget. Nothing fancy. Four burners and an oven. A couple of cool gadgets, my pressure cooker, of course, and a wafflemaker.
We hear you have an impressive outdoor grill.
It's a 4-foot-wide stainless steel fire pit. A friend and I usually throw something exotic on on the weekend. Aged meats, gator sausages, lamb, duck. I love cooking with fire, the flavor of the wood. In the future I'd love to open a place that cooks with wood.
Favorite way to spend a day off?
Watching my son grow up with my wife. I put him on my skateboard and roll him around or we watch a movie together, go to the park. We're having another boy in July.
What's a perfect meal out for you?
The ones where I don't order and a friend in the kitchen just keeps sending out dishes; small plates of lots of different things, lots of surprises. We've done something similar at the restaurant that's a five-course tasting menu, a sampler of signature dishes. People eat things they never thought they'd eat and they fall in love with it.
What's an ingredient or flavor you couldn't live without?
Anchovies. They add so much great flavor, I love cooking with them. When something's missing in a dish, it usually needs anchovy.
Who would you love to see walk in the door of your restaurant?
Chef Marc Vetri out of Philadelphia. (Editor's note: Vetri is a James Beard Award winner, cookbook author, teacher and restaurant owner.) Perfect style. Amazing food. He mills whole grains in his restaurant to make pasta flour so he gets the exact texture he wants. Italian transformed in a new, modern way.
What do you think of the Tampa Bay dining scene?
Ten, 15 years ago, I never thought it would be what it is today. So many places have brought a lot of attention to the area: Rooster & the Till, the Refinery, Z Grille, Brick & Mortar right down the street from us. Places keep opening up that keep blowing me away. Hawkers just opened down the street. Dining in this area is at a whole other level now. And people, customers, are really knowledgeable about food and wine.
Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at [email protected] or Irene Maher at [email protected]