Good restaurants beget good restaurants. And I have proof. David Benstock, 28, grew up in Seminole and went to Shorecrest Preparatory School. After a couple of years at Florida State University he ditched college in favor of the culinary program at Johnson and Wales in Denver.
From there it was stints at Spago at the Ritz-Carlton in Vail, Colo.; the Spice Market and the Modern in New York; a little European wandering; and then Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Visiting his parents back in Pinellas County in 2012, he and his wife Erica, 25, fell in love with downtown St. Petersburg.
Growing up, he says, downtown St. Pete was strictly "meh" when it came to restaurants, no place a young culinary hotshot would want to open shop. But in December he and Erica opened Il Ritorno, Italian for "the return." The Benstocks are banking on St. Petersburg being ready for their brand of smart, ingredient-driven contemporary Italian.
I think they're right.
The charming space, which housed Moscato's (since moved to the Kress Building in the same block), features gleaming concrete floors, faux plastered brick walls, and banquettes strewn with persimmon-colored pillows. Pretty and intimate, it suits the one-page, dinner-only menu as well as the nurturing, chummy service style. Erica, into the homestretch of pregnancy, oversees the dining room and provides the proud spouse's perspective on David's culinary vision.
She has a lot about which to be proud. Along with sous chef Joe Gattuso, David has exacting standards. They make their own crisp-topped focaccia and little salt-flecked ciabatta rolls, served on a stylish swath of black slate with a jewel-green basil oil. They make all their pastas and have a Harry Potter closet full of their andouille, pancetta and guanciale (it's not ready yet, but if you want to sample housemade sausage, the steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($12) come with a drift of nduja, pronounced "en-DOO-ya," a spicy ground pork sausage that David makes). And housemade desserts are boomin', from a coconut cake accessorized by candied local kumquat, toasted coconut and a quenelle of tangerine gelato ($9), to a trio of tiny lemon panna cottas with a pool of lemon curd, strawberry coulis and fresh strawberries ($9).
"Italian" is the kind of description that can get you into trouble, encompassing dozens of cuisines as it does. David's version is not fancy Northern Italian cream sauces, nor Sicily's big ol' bowls of meatballs. What he's doing is sensible portions at moderate prices (precisely halfway between Carrabba's and the Donatello), relying as often as possible on local products and plating dishes attractively and rigorously.
One evening's caprese ($13) brought gooey, delicious water buffalo burrata cheese sandwiched between wedges of heirloom tomato with a few antennalike tufts of mache and a dotted pattern of basil oil and inky aged balsamic. Equally pretty and well conceived, another night's rectangular platter of tiny chioggia and red beets were separated by fluffs of goat cheese into which shards of pecorino crisp were sunk, with microgreens, roasted fruity/heaty smoked shishito peppers and translucent dots of Meyer lemon gel ($11).
Sounds like a lot going on, right? But nothing is fussy or precious. Housemade squid ink capellini arrives in a tidy swirl, dotted with local shrimp and tender clams out of the shell, with a slight anise-herbal flavor from tarragon and sly heat from minced local jalapeno ($19). Porchetta from duroc pork is given a 24-hour brine and a 24-hour rub and then spends 10 hours in a low oven to yield tender, plush meat that gets paired with charred Brussels sprouts and a tangle of variegated red cress with tiny supremes of tangerine ($27).
I haven't even gotten to my favorite dishes, the short rib mezzaluna pasta ($17) and the fan of rosy duck breast over butternut squash spaetzle with a puddle of buff-colored apple-mostarda sauce ($27). But I must move on to the wine and beer lists, the former a mix of Italian and Californian bottlings, most hovering in the mid $30s, the latter featuring local darlings like Rapp and 3 Daughters on draft. Again, short, smart and incisive, like so much at Il Ritorno.
If good restaurants beget good restaurants, surely the Benstocks' little gem will draw other ambitious chefs and restaurateurs to consider a downtown St. Petersburg address. Works for me.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.