Pick an ethnicity, and you’ll likely find restaurants in our area to match it. But when it comes to local Italian, something’s missing. We’re not alone in our search for that family-run neighborhood place where the lighting is subdued, the pasta is made fresh daily, old-school dishes rule and the Chianti flows like ... well, wine.
You can still find that romanticized vision in San Francisco’s North Beach – Caffe Sport and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana come to mind – but places like that are getting more scarce (along with their hand-crafted pastas) as Chinatown expands.
Closer to home is the 3-year-old Bene Ristorante Italiano in Placerville, aka Bene Pizza. It’s where chef-owner Ben Butler makes from-scratch pasta, loaves of chewy-tender bread and fragrant marinara sauce every day. The secret to his tasty, well-textured pizza crust is the antico (“ancient style) Molino Caputo flour imported from Naples, Italy, the gold standard for pizza dough.
Butler is a self-taught cook, “not a professional or an expert,” he said on the phone. He learned the trade by “going to a lot of good and bad restaurants, experimenting with recipes, and doing research and development. My cooking is based on what’s been around for thousands of years – old-school Italian food, which means fresh, local and high-quality.”
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Two lunch pals and I spent some time there recently, pleased that the space was cozy and fragrant with the smells of bubbling sauce, roasting garlic and Italian sausage. The menu shows mostly classic dishes beginning with antipasti (meatballs with marinara and asiago cheese, sausage-stuffed mushrooms), salad (Caprese and Caesar), pasta (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil), fowl (chicken piccata), 13 pizzas (four of them also by the slice), four calzones and seven sandwiches, including an iteration of Italian beef, a Chicago specialty.
We started with minestrone and homemade bread. The rich beef-broth base was chunky with carrot, celery, onion and pasta, a homespun, flavor-rich rendition. As good as the soup was, the house-made bread was a show-stopper. We loved it in all its incarnations – plain slices, toasted slices, as garlic toast, and as garlic toast with melted mozzarella cheese.
Steaming lasagna arrived in a blimp-size ramekin, the melted cheese on top bearing a few delicious-looking scorch marks. The layered lasagna noodles melded with acidic-sweet house-made marinara (one more ladle, please), sausage, basil and three cheeses – ricotta, asiago and mozzarella.
Wide, tender ribbons of pappardelle were covered in a thick and hearty Bolognese ragu, coarse with pork and veal, some thyme and bay leaf, onion, carrot, celery, white wine and other good things. It was delicious, but we noticed a pool of oil accumulating in the bottom of the bowl as we ate our way down.
“That’s extra-virgin olive oil,” Butler said later. “We cook (the ragu ingredients) in it and we drizzle some on (the pasta). We’re not afraid to use it to keep the pasta from drying out.” We thought it was overkill.
Linguine with clams was excellent, the pasta disappearing under a heap of tender clams (we lost count after 20). The mollusks were fresh and plump, the sauce garlicky and buttery, though we thought the pasta could have spent a little less time in boiling water.
Linguine showed up again in a dish the menu described as combined with “our signature pesto and asiago.” We love pesto, the wonderful paste of basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil, and the pasta did have it mixed in. However, we couldn’t fully appreciate it because the taste of lemon had hijacked the dish, though one pal called it “refreshing.”
“It definitely hints lemon, and that’s the way it comes,” Butler said. “We do get comments (about the lemon taste) about once or twice a year.”
Note that Bene offers a delicacy rarely seen anymore in Italian restaurants – mozzarella from the Italian Mediterranean breed of domesticated water buffalo. It shows up only on the Caprese salad and as an upgrade on the Margherita pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil).
“The buffalo moz has such a light, creamy flavor that any other ingredient would bury it,” Butler said. “It shines by itself.”
Next time we’ll order a dish that’s new to us, “Garlic and More Garlic.” The menu describes it as “fresh garlic, roasted garlic cloves, mozzarella and tomato sauce.” We’ll bring mints.
Bene Ristorante Italiano
Where: 423 Main St., Placerville
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, Wednesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
How much: $$-$$$
Information: 530-303-3415, www.eatpizzabene.com