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  1. Food

Il Ritorno chef David Benstock prepares for dinner at the James Beard House

ST. PETERSBURG

The first song was Michael Jackson's Billy Jean, followed by Ben King's Stand by Me. And while I'm not sure what the message was from MJ, the Ben King song seemed just right: "No, I won't be afraid, no, I won't be afraid. Just as long as you stand, stand by me."

The playlist was line cook Kevin McCall's, who, along with cook Julie Nolan, sous chef Ian Quintin and general manager Ronald Randall, will stand by Il Ritorno owner and chef David Benstock on Tuesday at Benstock's first-ever solo dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.

Benstock, 32, is nervous, he won't lie. But having worked in New York kitchens and spent time around chefs in that part of the country, an opportunity to cook at the Beard House was a "no brainer," something he has always wanted to do. The kitchen at the home of James Beard, the man often credited with igniting Americans' passion for sophisticated food, is notoriously small, and diners have to traipse through the kitchen before sitting down.

Chefs must schlep a lot of their own ingredients and gear at great expense. Benstock guesses an average chef may shell out $10,000 out of pocket, although his regular vendors have agreed to pick up the tab for much of the wine, fish, meat and produce.

Is it worth it? Benstock thinks so. If dinner goes well, it could pay dividends: Some guests are New York's dining cognoscenti, some are diehard Il Ritorno fans, and some are actually the James Beard Foundation judges who function as kingmakers in these times when James Beard awards make national news.

A Beard win puts you on the map, which in turn puts money in your pocket as "culinary tourism" gains traction and investors look for proven thoroughbreds.

But first, you've got to wow 'em.

The Il Ritorno dinner is already sold out ($175 a pop for the public), with about 20 guests coming from Tampa Bay (including Benstock's parents, but only his dad will eat the dinner because his mom keeps kosher). So on a recent Sunday afternoon, a day the restaurant is ordinarily closed, the Il Ritorno team was doing a dry run, complete with wine pairings.

"Julie, you're going to take ownership of the crispy prosciutto with pickled cantaloupe and lemon gel," Benstock said in the crowded St. Petersburg kitchen, one that in August will be gutted and dramatically expanded. "I'm not exactly sure how we're going to do that dish. We'll play around."

Benstock doled out responsibilities quickly, and everyone got to work, Nolan smoking tomatoes and whipping up a batch of preserved ramp pasta dough, McCall on top of the shrimp broth, sweating garlic and shallots and beating up on some lemongrass stalks. Quintin focused in on the 50-day dry-aged steak tartare with fresh garbanzo beans, a horseradish foam and tomato oil, all of it scooped into small, crunchy Parmesan tuiles.

With calls of "sharp" when walking the tight space carrying knives, the chefs bumped into each other remarkably seldom, the soundtrack shifting to Rick James' Super Freak and the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive.

Randall explained his thought process with the wine pairings. For the passed hors d'oeuvres, no one complains about Champagne, right? The Ferghettina Franciacorta brut is made by the same method, only appropriately Italian.

With the second course — a squid ink capellini with lemongrass, Key West pink shrimp and Florida bottarga (dried mullet roe) — Randall thought: "Sancerre, with its good acidity to work against this dish." For that, the Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2014, something from Il Ritorno's own wine list and not super expensive.

And then something unexpected: La Scolca Gavi, flinty and citrusy, paired with a taleggio agnolotti (or tortellini; cook Nolan was making both) with crispy lamb belly, almost like a lamb bacon. Typically paired with seafood or white meat, Randall was hoping the Gavi would combat the heavy allium flavor of the ramps in the pasta as well as offset the intense fruity tang of the cheese.

As each dish was finished, it was brought out into the light of the dining room to be scrutinized, photographed, discussed and paired with its designated wine.

Poached Blue Point oysters topped with smoked steelhead trout roe and a little puddle of herbed creme? Perfect with the Italian sparkler. But did the Sancerre mask or accentuate the yuzu in the squid ink pasta? Opinions were divided. For the tartare: The Parmesan cup needed to be smaller, and Benstock forgot the garbanzo beans and had to tuck them in after the fact.

Still, delicious. And on Tuesday, Benstock and his team will be ready.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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