by Terry Rogers
Poncho and Lisa Johnson say that they never considered opening a restaurant in Milford. However, when Abbott’s Grill announced they would be closing, their phone started ringing off the hook.
“All we heard was “why not take over that location?” So, we went and looked at it,” Ms. Johnson said. “The building had a ton of potential and a lot of square footage. It also needs a ton of renovation. We began talking about it in January, even reaching out to a chef we know who could work with us. When he came on board, we knew we had to do it.”
The Johnson’s currently own a special event and catering business and will continue to operate that part of their business. The name of the restaurant, Benvenuto, derived from their love of pineapples, according to Ms. Johnson. She explained that “Benvenuto” is the Italian word for “welcome,” and, because the family loves Williamsburg and the colonial era, they knew the pineapple was a sign of welcome during that time. They chose that as the name of their special event and catering company so it was only natural to use it for the new restaurant.
“The theme of the new restaurant will be Tuscany, an area of the world we absolutely love,” Ms. Johnson said. “The décor and the names we are using. However, the food will be a lot of things. Tuscan food is not necessarily pasta, that is more of a side dish. Since Tuscany is on the Mediterranean, there is a lot of fresh fish so we will have dishes like cioppino which is a type of stew with lots of seafoods. Our Chef plans to have many different dishes like Beef Wellington, andouille meatloaf wrapped in bacon with a chipotle glaze, roasted chicken and more. We’ll have appetizers like lamb lollipops with a white bean salad, onion rings with a smoked pepper aioli, everything made fresh and from scratch.”
The entire restaurant will be gutted and rebuilt, according to the Johnson family, so it will look nothing like the former Abbott’s Grill location. The bar will be known as Bulgari, which is the central village in Tuscany. Ms. Johnson said that some of the finest wines in the world come from Bulgari and will be available at the restaurant. The main dining room will be known as Lucca.
“Lucca used to be one of the poorest areas in Italy and our friend took us to one of the oldest restaurants there,” Ms. Johnson said. “On each table there was a bottle of chianti because it was the cheapest wine available at one time. Today, Lucca is very affluent, but they still stick to old traditions. The private dining room will be known as Livorno. This is where my parents lived when he was in the service and where some of our very closest friends live.” Ms. Johnson explained that Lucca is known as the City by the Sea as it is right on the Mediterranean, a town she compares somewhat to Rehoboth Beach.
Initially, the Johnsons planned to offer separate menus in the different areas of the restaurant, but the chef, who they will not name at this time, suggested that may be difficult as people in the bar might want fine dining and people in the dining room may want a burger. All menu items will be available throughout the restaurant.
“There will be many fire and ice elements to the décor,” Ms. Johnson explained. “We are opening up walls and the kitchen will be visible. In fact, there will be a bar placed in front of the kitchen so people can see what is happening as food is prepared. Raised booths are planned along the wall in the main dining room along with tables at a lower level to provide better views across the room. We are completely redoing the patio and switching the fireplace from wood to gas or electric. It will be known as Florence, a town that has an outdoor feeling. We hope to add windows so we can open them during nice weather.” There will be a history of each area displayed in the restaurant and the Johnsons are hoping to incorporate photos of family and their beloved Italian family throughout the new restaurant.
Ms. Johnson said that their desire is not to create a fine dining experience. Instead, they want to create a sense of community. Their chef does not plan to remain in the kitchen cooking, instead training his sous chefs to run the kitchen so he can mingle with diners. In addition, they hope to bring in guest chefs periodically. The Johnsons hope that diners feel as if they are home when they come to enjoy a meal.
“Chef said he feels his job is to walk around, talk to guests, get feedback and adjust his menu to meet what people want,” Ms. Johnson said. “His main job is to go to restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC and other places to help owners figure out what is going wrong. The restaurant where he is now, he quadrupled their business. He believes that you only find out what you are doing when you pay attention to the guests.” In addition to the chef, Ms. Johnson said that they were negotiating with a bar manager whose name she also could not release, stating that he was well-known in the area and that people will be thrilled to know he was coming.
Before they open in mid-November, the Johnson’s hope to do a tasting night where guests can purchase a ticket that would allow them to taste everything on the menu. The idea is to get feedback from the community about what dishes work, what dishes do not work and what needs tweaking. The couple has talked about a possible seafood buffet on Friday nights in winter that would have fresh fish, steamship round, a raw bar and other items, but not 30 to 50 items like other buffets include. They plan to do a Game and Barbecue Night and possibly do seafood boils on the patio during the summer.
“We plan to have a cheese case where people can purchase and each day we will have one out to sample which will be 10 percent off,” Ms. Johnson said. “We are offering a huge burger menu. One was created by our son, Colby’s Game Burger. It is an elk burger with wild boar bacon, whiskey cheddar cheese, a duck egg on top with a blackberry barbecue sauce. We will offer chef’s famous short rib fries. A layer of hand-cut French fries, topped with shredded short ribs, caramelized onions, roasted red pepper and a garlic cheese sauce. On Wednesday nights, we are bringing back chicken and dumplings just like they used to have at Geyer’s.
Other amenities offered include flavored olive oils, truffles and gift baskets. Anyone celebrating a special occasion can request fresh cut flowers on the table. There will be valet parking but for those who choose to self-park, there will be escorts available to walk them to their car.
“Our goal is to create a place that you want to come back to, not just for the food but because you feel like you are home there,” Ms. Johnson said. “We want this to be something that helps downtown grow and is a destination for people who live, work and visit Milford.”
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