In every issue of LocalsDISH, we celebrate a local chef through our coveted chef interview. This particular chef made a name for himself in Tampa Bay and beyond. Chef David Benstock’s restaurant has unquestionably become one of Tampa Bay’s hot dining spots! From the Short Rib Mezzaluna to the Torched Cobia, IL Ritorno’s unique food and Chef David’s memorable style are the perfect combination for a dining adventure that every foodie should experience.
How did you get your start?
I started working in the kitchen at Villa Gallace on Indian Rocks Beach when I was 15 years old, and that is where my love for cooking really began. In college, I enjoyed going to work more than class, so after talking to my parents, we decided that culinary school was the route for me. Having the flexibility to change the menu and the freedom to be creative is a huge part of why I love owning a restaurant.
What are the most rewarding and difficult aspects of being a chef?
Missing out on time with family and friends is definitely the hardest part of being a chef and restaurant owner. It is really tough finding that balance between work life and personal life that we all need. The most rewarding part of being a chef is seeing all of my hard work and sacrifices pay off. There is nothing like walking into the dining room and seeing the look on my guests’ faces as they enjoy the food, or hearing all of the positive and encouraging feedback.
Your cooking style is…
Fresh and constantly evolving.
What do you cook at home?
The restaurant is only closed on Sundays, so that is really my only day to cook at home. We have a big fire pit grill, and I like to cook on that when I can. My wife, Erica, loves to cook pasta, so if we don’t cook on the grill, pasta is usually our Sunday go-to.
How do your keep your menu fresh?
I do my best to change the menu as often as possible, but there are a few select items that have become our signature dishes that I won’t change. As the seasons change, we use the fresh produce that becomes available and I incorporate that into the menu. I like to cook outside of the box, and our guests are becoming more open to trying different or uncommon dishes. I believe we have established a following now of guests and regulars that trust my style and are willing to try new things.
IL Ritorno has been open for over 2 years now. How are you constantly evolving to keep your restaurant/menu exciting and innovative?
In the cooking world, it is important to stay relevant without getting wrapped up in trendy dishes. Personally, I love working with seasonal produce and specialty products like truffles and caviar. They allow me to elevate my dishes to a whole new level without the intimidation factor. If a dish doesn’t work or isn’t well received I have the creative power to tweak it until it is just right. This winter I bought a pasta extruder, which has been a dream come true. It has made a world of difference to our menu, and I now have the ability to offer many different types and shapes of pasta in addition to the hand-rolled and formed shapes.
Do you source local ingredients?
We have never claimed to be farm-totable, but we do try and source local products whenever possible. I would rather bring in an amazing cheese from California or Italy than sacrifice the quality. However, we do get a lot of our micro greens from local farmers. Being a small local business, we do our best to support other local businesses like us. All of our beers on tap are from local breweries, as well as many of our canned and bottled beers. We also offer Kahwa Coffee and Infused Tea Company products. We do our part, but quality and consistency are very important to me as well.
In the cooking world, it is important to stay relevant without getting wrapped up in trendy dishes.
You’ve lived and worked in numerous places around the world like Colorado, New York City, Miami and Italy. What experiences have influenced you the most?
I have been influenced by all of the places I’ve worked. My time in Italy taught me the importance of freshness. There is nothing like fish that comes in fresh and not frozen, or pasta and bread made daily. You can really taste the difference in that. My first time working in a major kitchen was in Colorado and I learned a lot from the chef there. A big part of cooking is taking bits and pieces from everyone and turning them into your own. The two years I spent at Scarpetta in Miami really showed me how creative you can be with Italian food, and how well received that creativity can be here. Each chef’s style has influenced me, and I am proud to show that in my dishes.
How do you test out new recipes?
Whenever there is a new dish I’m considering, and I want honest and constructive feedback, I ask my dad to come down and try it. I know he won’t sugarcoat things to protect my feelings, and that is because he believes in me and wants the restaurant to succeed. We also have a lot of regulars in the restaurant that I will send a new dish out to for their feedback as well.
Your 5 essential ingredients…
Olive Oil, Thyme, Calabrese Chili, Salt, Flour.
A food you dislike?
Your most memorable meal was…
It is hard to pick one. My top three (in no particular order) would be:
- My dad and I were in Hawaii and we had an Omakasa dinner that was beyond anything I could have imagined. Fresh, creative, and the surprise factor was great.
- Whenever I am in New York I have to go back to Casa Mono. Their food never disappoints and it is definitely one of my favorite restaurants.
- When I was traveling Italy I spent a few nights in Florence. There was this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that didn’t have a menu. They just sent out food until you threw in the towel. I went back three nights in a row.