Now that we’re winding down to the end of 2009, we will start seeing the demise of restaurants across the city. Many that have been around for a while are being forced to close because of tough economic times and huge rent increases. Being able to last for years as well as decades is a huge accomplishment and should be applauded.
On a recent night out with old friends, we dined at Benito’s II in Little Italy. I was a kid in the fashion industry when I first discovered this spot. My then boyfriend and I would frequently dine here and bring our friends and co-workers. The food was always good and the experience was made unique by the owner Sal. He would greet you like his family, sit you down, make sure you were fed well and would chat with you over a glass of wine. My relationship with the boyfriend didn’t last but our friendship did and we make it a tradition to dine here whenever he’s in town.
I remember evenings when the restaurant was bustling and patrons lined up outside waiting for a chance to enjoy an amazing meal. If tables were backing up, he would indiscreetly nudge those lingering diners to pay their bill and get out. My friend and I would watch him in action and say; “Sal, you can’t insult your customers and force them to leave.” He would look at us and say; “Eating here is a like a eating at your Mother-In-Law’s. You a come. You a sit. You a eat. Then a you go a home.” His boldness would always crack me up.
Other evenings were met with fisherman coming in with their fresh catch of the day and Sal parading the fish around the restaurant saying; “Have a you ever seen a fish a so fresh? Come, I will make a you something special.” Priceless.
One of my favorite dishes on the menu was a pasta dish called Spaghetti Metro D’Itale. It was the bomb!!! I was distraut when they took it off the menu but Sal would always make it for me no matter what. Gotta love him!!!
The point to my story? I’m getting there.
On a recent visit, the restaurant was quiet. Real quiet. Not like the bustling evenings I remember. Worried that they might have changed hands, we asked if Sal was still the owner. The waiter said yes and we sat down knowing our meal would be outstanding….and as always, it was. What did we order? The usual appetizers- Broccoli Rabe, Broccoli sauted in Garlic & Oil. Italians are known for killing their veggies but these are bright green with a little crunch left in them. Baked Clams – moist and tasty. And of course a basket a bread to dunk because as my Grandmother always said; “That’s the best part of the meal.” I ordered the Shrimp Francese which was lemony, tender and juicy. John as always ordered the Spaghetti with Clams. As we were licking our plates, we looked at each other and said; “This meal is as good as the first time we came here.”
Just as we finished, Sal walked in. He looked good but time has slowed him down. He shared stories with us about his 30years being in business. His chef who has been with him from the start (explains the consistency in the food) and the tough times he’s having. High rent is hitting him hard and making it difficult to stay afloat. I was filled with sadness to know that my favorite spot may turn into a memory.
Here’s my point…I started Cheapeats as a service to diners to educate you that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well. With the site launch just around the corner, these treasures will be at your fingertips. Please do support them, they’re what makes this city magical.
Landlords, I know times are tough and we all have to make a buck, but don’t be greedy. If someone has been with you for 30years, show some loyalty and work with them instead of against them.
Cheapeaters, if you want an amazing meal and be treated like family….go to Benitos II. You’ll thank me for it. CASH ONLY!
Happiness, $25 and under and a big hug and kiss for Sal.