Grove Stand: Il Ritorno
When David Benstock made his way back to his native Florida, he brought with him the skills to create a smart, contemporary Italian restaurant, Il Ritorno, now a standout in the St. Pete dining scene.
In a way, the restaurant’s name was a prediction, a harbinger of all the good things to come to St. Petersburg. David Benstock grew up in the Tampa Bay area, but when he fell in love with food and cooking, his hands were tied: There just wasn’t enough going on in his hometown. He had to move away, on a pilgrimage to major urban centers where the gastronomic scene was more dynamic. He hopped from the Ritz-Carlton in Beaver Creek, Colorado, to such celebrated New York City restaurants as The Modern, back when it boasted just one Michelin star.
But in December 2013, the then-26-year-old phenom debuted Il Ritorno—”the return” in Italian. The young chef had returned home to open an edgy, intimate, high-end Italian restaurant. At that time, it was also St. Petersburg that had bounced back. No longer was it a sleepy snowbird town. Something was happening. The streets were newly dotted with restaurants, bars and craft breweries, and young folks were venturing out in search of sustenance and revelry. The launch of Il Ritorno marked a new chapter for St. Pete. It began to compete ably with Tampa, across the bay, for destination restaurants and culinary ambition.
Today, Benstock is only 31, and his wife Erica is just 29, but, nearly four years in, their restaurant is like an elder statesman, a sophisticated veteran in the ever-changing sea of upstart eateries, bars and food businesses downtown. This past summer, they annexed the space next door and doubled the size of their restaurant. And,in July, the staff of Il Ritorno headed to New York City for its first James Beard House dinner.
This was not always the plan. Benstock studied business at Florida State University and was expected to go into the family business, Superior Uniform Group, started by his great-grandfather. Based in Seminole, the company, which provides uniforms to hospitals and fast-food chains around the world, has made it onto Forbes’ list of top 100 small companies. But a high school job in the kitchen of Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach whet his appetite for another career path.
He left Florida State in favor of culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
“Dad was hesitant at first. I’m not going to lie,” says Benstock. “He warmed up to it, and now he’s my biggest supporter.”
Benstock has fond memories of his hometown, like sneaking out of his kosher household on a skateboard to try pepperoni pizza for the first time. And now that he’s returned, he has loads of loyal fans. At the St. Pete Wine & Food Festival in 2015, he hand rolled 4,500 mezzaluna with braised short rib, dressing each one carefully with truffle fonduta and topping them with shaved truffle flown in from Italy. St. Petersburg collectively swooned, and now that dish is impossible to remove from the menu at Il Ritorno.
“I’ve thought about taking it off, but it’s become one of our classics. The octopus puttanesca is another good example of who we are as a restaurant,” he says. “It’s deconstructing tradition, with octopus instead of anchovy, a confit of tomato instead of thick tomato sauce, a thin kalamata puree instead of the whole olives, with calabrian chile oil and garlic confit. I tell people it’s not your ‘chicken parm and tomato sauce’ kind of Italian. We use classic Italian flavors with modern techniques.”
Even when Il Ritorno first opened, with a microscopic kitchen and only ten burners, two taken up with boiling pasta water, David and his small team were making their own pastas, breads and gelatos. Their plates are jewel-like, and their compositions are architectural and exacting, with the occasional molecular gastronomy sleight of hand.
All that said, it is still the kind of inviting, neighborhood restaurant that seems equally appropriate for date night or a family dinner (the Benstocks themselves are parents to Ethan, 3, and Miles, nearly 1). In a space that now seats 53 but will balloon to hold more than 150, a long expanse of brick wall, upholstered banquettes strewn with pillows and a generous granite bar lend warmth. But it’s what’s on Benstock’s plates, from seafood brodetto to tallegio agnolotti, that keeps diners coming back.