"The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in the door is how much time, effort and thought went into the décor. Bensi has a trendy urban bistro atmosphere. Even the bar in the front of the restaurant makes you feel like you’re in a chic Manhattan club."
November, 2009: Berks County Living magazine (Jon Pacific)
I admit it. When I first saw Bensi being built in the new Shoppes at Wyomissing I said, “There are two things Berks County doesn’t need: another Italian restaurant and another chain.” Boy was I wrong. True, the new Bensi Ristorante Italiano is one of 24 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and it is an Italian restaurant. But Bensi is not like any restaurant in Berks County.
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in the door is how much time, effort and thought went into the décor. Bensi has a trendy urban bistro atmosphere. Even the bar in the front of the restaurant makes you feel like you’re in a chic Manhattan club.
But you won’t find any trendy creations or culinary fads on the menu. This menu is strict, traditional Neapolitan fare, all made from scratch, all made to order. This is one chain where you won’t find any conveyer belts and pre-fab frozen meals in the kitchen.
The founders of Bensi, John Osso and Mario Bernado, were born in Calabria, Italy, and moved to the N.Y./N.J. area as kids. They opened their first restaurant, a small pizzeria, in Tenafly, N.J., back in 1983, where they served made-to-order family recipes to their American clientele. Their motto “Always Fresh, All Ways Italian” sets the tone for all of their 24 locations.
Part of Bensi’s unique concept has to do with its owners. Every Bensi has a head chef and general manager who are co-owners in the restaurant. At the Bensi in Wyomissing that would be Executive Chef Nicole Postek and General Manager Perry Cirulli. Many of you may know Perry from the old Temple Hotel, his family restaurant that he worked for and later owned for more than 30 years.
Perry was born in Schiavi di Abruzzo, Italy. His family moved to the United States when he was just four. “I started learning how to cook Italian food when I was very young,” says Perry. “I learned how to cook pasta when I was five. I used to stand on a chair and drop pasta for my grandmother.”
Chef Nicole Postek is also a Berks County native. In 2003, Nicole graduated from Fleetwood High School and the Berks Career & Technology Center, where she focused on culinary arts. She worked as a chef for Buca Di Beppo before moving over to a Bensi in North Wales, N.J. When the opportunity to move back to her hometown and open a new Bensi presented itself, she jumped at the chance.
The second part of Bensi’s unique concept is all about the food. Most Italian cuisine we grew up with here in Berks County is an Americanized version of Italian food. The founders, as well as Perry Cirulli, were all born in Italy. The cuisine they are trying to authenticate is from Naples, Italy, so you’ll find a lot of seafood such as calamari, mussels, shrimp and scallops on the appetizer menu as well as Chilean sea bass, sole and lobster on the entrees menu.
Throughout the menu you’ll find Mediterranean and Italian ingredients such as capers, eggplant, olive oil, white wine, Romano cheese and fresh mozzarella. The other unique aspect of their menu is that it is all made to order. “Bensi has one of the most authentic Italian menus you’ll find in Pennsylvania,” Perry says. “All of our sauces are made to order, which is virtually unheard of in the industry.”
When you order the pasta fagioli, for example, they don’t open up a bag of pasta fagioli concentrate, add water, and heat, like you’d expect in most restaurants. The chefs wait for your order to come in; sauté onions and garlic, add the cannellini beans, tomato paste and other fresh ingredients, add chicken stock, finish it with fresh herbs and a little grated cheese, and the soup heads right out to your table. You’ll find the same holds true for almost all their menu items.
Now for those of you who want popular Italian dishes such as lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs or just a nice filet with a side of linguine, Bensi has all of those classic dishes. For those of you looking for a fresh Neapolitan dish you won’t find on most other Italian menus, try the shrimp with garlic sauce and white beans for starters or the eggplant rolatine. The shrimp with garlic sauce is served in a light garlic broth with fresh tomatoes and white beans. It’s a very light, refreshing appetizer to start your meal. The eggplant rolatine is a little more substantial. It starts with about a quarter-inch slice of eggplant, which is layered with a blend of ricotta and Romano cheeses and some fresh herbs. It’s then rolled, topped with the house marinara sauce and mozzarella, and baked in the oven.
Notable entrées include the pan-fried veal arugula with fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella. The chicken Francese with artichoke hearts starts with thin slices of chicken breasts that are lightly breaded and simmered in a white wine, butter and lemon sauce. “There are no shortcuts here,” Perry says proudly. “All these sauces are made to order and created just for this entrée.”
A new wine menu was rolled out in September that offers many South American, Spanish and Italian wines. Our server, Anthony Amadio, was able to suggest an excellent Spanish Cabernet to go with my veal Marsala and a nice crisp Argentinean pinot grigo to pair with my wife Madeline’s Chilean sea bass with escarole and white beans.
So, once again, I’m glad to be proven wrong. I never thought I’d rediscover my love of Italian food right here in Wyomissing. Next time I’m looking to grab a light appetizer and a glass of wine with the wife or taking my picky Italian father out for dinner, I’m going to Bensi.