It’s a busy Friday night in the North End and chef Joe Bono is right at home. His new restaurant Benevento’s, named for the Italian town, is packed and orders are streaming in. But in the open kitchen, Bono performs a calm, seamless ballet. In just seconds, he paddles pizza pies into the brick oven, deftly flips shrimp with the bounce of a pan, and drapes gnocchi in a rich, red Bolognese. The action never stops. In 22 years in the business, Bono has mastered his craft and it shows not just in how easily he cooks but how well.
Appetizers and pizzas are the strong points here. The casual fare fits the cozy space, which is warmed by wood paneling, a marble bar, and a mocha tin ceiling — and decked out with nine flatscreens.
We start with crusty bruschetta ($7.95), buttery garlic bread topped with fresh basil and a hill of ripe, diced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Sauteed calamari ($9.95) is skillfully tender, its sea taste mingling with Chablis in a luscious, spicy marinara. Mussels ($8.95) too are tender bites tossed in marinara, and shrimp scampi ($8.95) in a garlic-lover’s butter sauce offers juicy mouthfuls. All three sauces sop up nicely with fluffy bread baked around the corner at Parziale’s. Salads are fresh but not flashy, though a grilled fig salad ($7.95) is irksome with cold, barely grilled figs.
In 1993, Bono opened Al Dente next door, and some starters and entrees are Al Dente favorites. New are the brick-oven pizzas. Bono makes an excellent, bubbly, thin, Neapolitan-style crust and a dozen different 12-inch pizzas ($10.95-$12.75). Or choose among 32 toppings from sweet sausage or homemade meatballs (made by Bono’s mom) to gorgonzola or mixed greens. The Benevento pizza (pictured, $12.75) stands out with a chunky tomato sauce, sweet caramelized onions, roasted peppers, eggplant, just enough mozzarella, and soft dollops of ricotta. Ben cotto ($10.95), though not filling, is intensely flavorful with a chewy layer of Pecorino Romano over a whisper of red sauce and lots of garlic and olive oil.
Pastas and sauces are mix and match. We enjoy fresh fusilli in rich carbonara ($12.95) with crisp-fried fatty pork. But butter and cream weighs down (and dilutes) pesto ($13.95).
No desserts are offered, but don’t be surprised if you’re served a complimentary shot of homemade cream limoncello instead. Bottled versions can’t compare to the zesty zing of this summery lemon liquor made sherbet-like by adding frothed cream. We’d return just for it — and the show in the open kitchen, of course.