Make us your home page

The Dish: Il Ritorno chef David Benstock talks modern Italian food and more

Chef David Benstock of Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg prepares octopus for an octopus puttanesca appetizer recently.


Chef David Benstock of Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg prepares octopus for an octopus puttanesca appetizer recently.

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 or Irene Maher at

The Dish: Il Ritorno chef David Benstock talks modern Italian food and more 04/04/16 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2016 10:41am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Glen Campbell's wife Kim discusses challenges, guilt caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, others face

    Life Times

    If there's one thing Kim Campbell would change about caregiving for Alzheimer's patients, it's the attitude so many of us have toward transferring a loved one from home to a long-term care facility. According to Campbell, it's often the most kind, loving decision you can make. It's not a sign of failure, but one of …

    Kim Campbell, wife of country music legend Glen Campbell, is acknowledged by those attending the free event where she shared the story of her personal journey with Alzheimer???‚??„?s disease and the struggles she faced caring for her husband on Friday (5/26/17) at the Suncoast Hospice's Empath Health Service Center in Clearwater. Empath Choices for Care, a member of Empath Health, and Arden Courts Memory Care hosted the free event where Kim shared her story to help others understand the early stages, how the disease changes lives, the challenges families face and the role of caregiver.
  2. What happened when I took my dad to a Pitbull concert

    Music & Concerts

    TAMPA — "So, you know how you like Pitbull?" I asked my dad. "We can see him."

    Selfie of Divya Kumar and Anand Kumar at Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias concert.
  3. Tampa City Council votes to accept travel invitation from Cuban ambassador


    The invitation came to Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin in a June 9 letter from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.

    The Tampa City Council voted 6-0, with Frank Reddick out of the room, to respond to a travel invitation from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 25


    St. Pete Pride Festival: The daytime festival covers Central Avenue's Grand Central District with more than 350 vendors, multiple stages, live music, art and food. 9 a.m., Grand Central District, 2429 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 342-0084.

    Kristen Whalen poses for a photo before the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg last year. It's that time of year again, so check with us for your planning purposes. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2016)]
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 24


    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth …

    Thousands line the streets of Central Ave. during the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.  [Saturday, June 25, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]