Benucci's Contemporary Italian Cuisine

My friend, Marie, and I went out for dinner and a movie (Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont) last night. We decided on Benucci’s for dinner.

We’ve eaten at Benucci’s several times. It’s conveniently located in the same strip mall as the Pittsford Plaza theater, is reasonably priced, and the Italian food has been dependably good.

Our dinner started with bread and garlic butter, which is complimentary with every meal. The bread, which is usually served warm, was cold. The butter, redolent with garlic, was delicious as usual.

Marie ordered her favorite dish, Pasta Bolognese ($8.95). When it arrived, I took one look at the dish and asked her, “does that look like Bolognese sauce to you?” It looked like a thin red marinara sauce with bits of meat in it – which is NOT a Bolognese sauce. Bolognese sauce is a thick meat sauce that sometimes contains tomatoes, but does not look like a red sauce. Marie agreed that it didn’t look like a Bolognese sauce, and when she tasted it, she said it was bland and very different from the Bolognese sauce she’s had at Benucci’s before.

We asked the waitress if she was sure the cook got the order correct, and she said that Marie had, in fact, received Bolognese sauce. When Marie explained she had had the Bolognese sauce there before and it wasn’t like this, she explained they had new cooks, and that may be why it was different. She didn’t ask whether Marie was happy with it, or offer to bring something else. Marie didn’t push it, but she was disappointed with her meal.

The situation brought to mind the book “Taste” by Bill Buford, which I read a few weeks ago. The book discussed chef Mario Batali’s restaurants, and the fact that Batali is a fanatic with the consistency of the dishes served at them. His belief was that people who order a given dish want it to be exactly the same each time they eat it, regardless of who’s cooking it. I didn’t give that much thought when I read the book, but now I’ve realized that Batali is exactly right in this philosophy.

Admittedly, Benucci’s doesn’t charge anywhere near the prices that Batali charges at his restaurants, so I wouldn’t expect the same level of perfection from them. I would think, however, that restaurants have a series of recipes that all the cooks work from. I can’t imagine how a recipe for the Bolognese sauce Marie had eaten in the past would result in the sauce that was served last night.

I ordered a wood-fired pizza called Pizza Rustica ($8.95). It was a tomato sauce-based pizza topped with Italian sausage, artichoke hearts, garlic, roasted red peppers, and caramelized onions. The combination of ingredients was tasty enough (although the onions weren’t caramelized), but I was disappointed with the crust. I expect a wood-fired pizza to have a crisp, cracker-like crust. This one sagged when I picked it up, so I had to eat it with a knife and fork. The only part of the crust that was crisp was the outside edges.

All in all, it was a disappointing evening from a usually dependable restaurant.

Have you recently eaten at Benucci’s? If so, do you think they were just having an off night? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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Rottenchester said...

Benucci's has been going downhill for a couple of years. What I remember about my most recent visit (around 3-4 months ago) wasn't the food, but the tell-tale signs of a restaurant in decline. These include letting the menus get shabby (foodstains, torn, etc), obviously inexperience and ill-trained waitstaff, and "slop the food on the plate" presentation. When Benucci's opened in the late 90's, it was the only decent restaurant in the Pittsford Plaza area. With Brio, Applebee's and Black-and-Blue opening in the past couple of years, Benucci's has been facing some stiff upmarket and downmarket competition. They are hurting because of it.

Tracy said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that there are more choices in the Pittsford Plaza area than there used to be, but if Benucci's has gone downhill I'm not sure what our usual "before the movie" spot is going to be.

I haven't been to Black & Blue - out of my price range. I had one meal at Brio and found it unremarkable (I can't even tell you what I ate), especially for the price.

Then there are the chains. I can take Applebee's only every so often. I've been to Camille's Sidewalk Cafe three times and haven't found an item on the menu that I really enjoy. Plus, I'd rather frequent a local restaurant owner than a big chain if at all possible.

What's a cheap gal to do?

By the way, Benucci's was hopping when we were there. Maybe they are hurting with the increased competition, but my hunch is that they fill a niche well enough and are so established that they don't have to try any harder.

Rottenchester said...

You're not missing anything at Black&Blue, IMO. I agree also that Brio is also nothing special, especially lately.

You're right that in general there is a dearth of good restaurants in Benucci's price range or a little less in the Pittsford Plaza area. Actually, that type of restaurant is lacking in Rochester in general. Either you have to shell out big $$ for a pretty good shot at an interesting meal, or you end up at a mid-priced chain. If you know of some mid-priced, interesting, locally-owned restaurants, I'd love to hear about it.

Also, I think there are certain times of the week (Fri/Sat night) where *every* restaurant in the 'burbs is full. I'd guess it's pretty quiet at Benucci's on a off night like, say, Tuesday.