David Benstock, executive chef behind Central Avenue’s upscale Italian powerhouse, Il Ritorno, never wanted his restaurant to be predictable. “Every month we’re in here talking about food,” he shared while tucking fennel beneath a delicate cut of veal, “We’re in the back, we’re thinking about how to change the menu.”
A New York native, and Il Ritorno first-timer, I watched with high hopes as David and his team moved quickly beneath the orange glow of the kitchen lights. Since my move to St. Pete, I’ve had my fingers crossed that I’d be able to find a Michelin-style, progressive tasting menu that lived up to the image of what fine dining should be. After one bite of Chef Benstock’s new “Grande Italian Piedmont Tasting,” I realized I’d finally found one. And it’s just as innovative as he promised.
Italian cuisine arrives in downtown St. Pete
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping everyone on lockdown, Benstock was inspired to create a “worldly” experience that could take people on an international culinary journey right in the heart of St. Petersburg. Hence, the six-course Piedmont tasting was born.
Available for the month of December only, the menu features the sophisticated cuisine of northwestern Italy with unconventional takes on classic dishes alongside never-before-seen chef’s creations. From white truffles to candied hazelnuts, you can check out the 4-week menu below.
Or you can just skip to the part where you book your reservation. That works, too.
Amusé: Coffee Dipped Dry Age Tartare
The amusé-bouche is a “pre-appetizer” (think of it as a bonus course) that’s meant to warm the palette for the courses to come. Here, Il Ritorno creates theirs by brushing aged beef with cured duck egg to create an elevated steak tartare. Cocoa dusted, coffee dipped, and accompanied by a kicking Fresno aioli, the amuse is as colorful to the eye as it is to the palette.
Course 1: Regional Cheese, Vegetable, and Meat Board
Name a better way to start a meal than with a charcuterie board. Spoiler alert: there isn’t one.
Featuring gorgonzola cheese, thin sliced bresaola, and the Piedmont classic anchovy dressing, bagna cauda, this particular board seems ambitious on paper. The boldness of the salty flavors, however, are perfectly balanced with a sweet calabrese chili jam which—if you’re anything like me— you’ll probably end up eating straight off the spoon.
Course 2: Vitello Tonnato
I had a plus-one accompany me on this tasting, and he is adamant that this was the best dish of the night. Composed of tender cut veal in a Hamachi-fat derived sauce, Chef Benstock puts his personal spin on this classic Piedmontese appetizer, and you’ll definitely want another one.
Course 3: Agnolotti di Plin
Here’s the thing about Agnolotti di Plin: they’re pretty much the stuffed pasta version of a garbage can, but in the best way possible.
The term “di Plin” refers to a filling made of meat scraps that are too small to be used in other dishes. So, what that means for you, the diner, is that you will never get the same pasta twice; it all depends on what’s available in the kitchen. For thrill seeker like myself, the surprise (which was prosciutto, by the way) was awesome.
Course 4: Tajarin al Burron
This course was a showstopper, and hands down my favorite of the night. Tajarin is a luxuriously decadent pasta made almost completely of egg yolks, and this one was dripping in white truffle and grana padana cheese. The pasta was al dente, the sauce was creamy, and the Alba truffles were handpicked at the prime of their harvest.
In short, the dish was damn near perfection.
Course 5: Lamb Shank Risotto
Lamb is a quintessential Italian necessity, and this generously portioned course hits all the marks of a properly done shank. The secret? Each cut of meat is braised for a minimum of 6 hours before it even hits the plate. By the time you get it, it pretty much falls off the bone.
It’s also important to note that, at this time, the general manager presented us with glasses of 2015 Prunotto Barolo wine to help cut the richness of the dish. “The King of Wine,” he called it, is part of the menu’s optional wine-pairing, and it was lovely.
Course 6: Chocolate-Shelled Nutella Mousse
Closing out the night was a decadent dessert of Nutella mousse enrobed in melted chocolate and sitting atop a bed of crushed cookies, chocolate “snow,” and candied hazelnuts.
You’re going to lick the plate. I promise.
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed foodie, are searching for a unique dining experience, or have an aching sense of wanderlust, Il Ritorno’s Grande Italian Piedmont Tasting is a must-try, St. Pete’s necessity.
And if none of those apply to you—it’s the holidays. Time to eat, drink, and be merry.
To make a reservation for this limited-time event, diners can visit Il Ritorno’s website, or call (727) 897 5900.