Growing up in San Francisco, I had a thing for everyday neighborhood restaurants. I adored personal attention from the owners, was charmed by creative decor, and found comfort in familiar menus that didn’t require a translator, glossary of local farms, or second mortgage to pay the tab.
Though they are harder to come by these days, I still seek out and am enamored of the little guy, so it came as a welcome surprise to discover that Corte Madera’s Benissimo is just such a place.
No short-timer, the Italian restaurant on a residential stretch of Tamalpais Boulevard is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Founded by Persian brothers Manoochehr and Saheed Farahmand, it started as the next step for Saheed, who moved here with his Italian wife after a successful eight-year stint running a restaurant in Umbria, Italy. The duo has been bringing the classic cuisine of Naples to Corte Madera ever since.
Inside, the look is undeniably quaint with concrete block walls warmed by rich red and harvest-gold paint and whimsical paintings, tables filled with regulars, booths divided by tinted Plexiglas, and a large dark wood bar stocked for the most elaborate cocktail requests. Chunky wineglasses and recorded Italian music fit the nostalgic surroundings perfectly and, like everything else about this place, say it’s time to relax and enjoy.
The menu makes it easy to comply. Based on family recipes from Saheed’s Neapolitan wife, the menu’s antipasto, pizza, pasta, risotto and entrées are so recognizable it’s nearly effortless to home in on favorites, set the menu aside and get down to the business of eating.
With a touch of anchovy flavor and a thick and tangy dressing, the kitchen does the classic Caesar salad justice, while the sprinkle of store-bought croutons reminds you that Benissimo is indeed an old-school joint. The Caprese follows yesteryear’s antics, too, remaining on the menu year-round, even when thick out-of-season tomato wheels have more crunch than flavor and the point is really to devour a few fat slabs of mozzarella—which was fine with me once I scooted the fresh garlic sliver topping aside.
My party found most of the entrées deeply comforting, from the tomato-kissed creamy pink sauce smothering spinach- and ricotta-stuffed ravioli to the classic rendition of chicken Marsala. We did wish the eggplant Parmesan’s egg batter was subtler, but the dish was still tasty—especially as leftovers.
Most beloved neighborhood restaurants have a must-order dish. At Benissimo it’s the pizza. Paper-thin and impossibly crisp with intense tomato sauce, it’s a perfect rendition and more than enough reason to pay a visit. Still, affordable and family-friendly Benissimo has so much more to offer the diner hungry for good old-fashioned food and hospitality.
Should you drop in for dinner, you will encounter one of the brothers, who alternate managing the front of the house nightly. But don’t call Manoochehr and Saheed by their given names. When they first opened their doors in 1987 a neighboring shopkeeper dubbed them Mario and Tony respectively, and the names stuck.
Benissimo, 18 Tamalpais Dr., Corte Madera, 415.927.2316, benissimos.com. Most entrées $11–$20. Open nightly.
A La Carte
Livin’ The Vino Local Long-time Mill Valley residents Dan and Katy Leese have been living the vintner’s dream as owners of Red Truck Wines, which they purchased from the Cline Family of Sonoma in 2005. Parents associated with the Mill Valley Public School fundraiser, Kiddo! might recognize them for their generous donation to their latest fundraiser. For the rest of us, look for their new label, a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Russian River called Picket Fence available at specialty wine stores and restaurants in Marin and beyond. redtruckwine.com
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