Word-of-mouth is working for Joe Benny’s Focacceria.
On the day I visited, it was responsible for one Floridian stopping in for the first time on her sister and brother-in-law’s recommendation; a pair of O’s fans made their second trip after walking by one night and noticing a line wrapped around the corner; and Joe Benny’s customers formed a strong voting bloc which led to the restaurant’s victory in The Baltimore Banner’s Pizza Bracket.
So how does Joseph Gardella, chef and owner of Joe Benny’s, feel about beating out more than 30 area pizza spots?
“Sometimes I feel like pizza contests are a little silly because everyone’s got their joint, right? It’s hard to say ‘best pizza,’” he said.
Still, a win is a win.
“Cool as shit. It really is.”
At first glance, what makes Joe Benny’s different is the pizza’s focaccia base. Dense but not dry, thanks to a generous amount of olive oil. And mostly soft, with a satisfying crunch around the edges.
The pizza is good — quality ingredients, unique toppings and combinations — but what makes Joe Benny’s really stand out are the stories behind the food.
On the day I visited, the focacceria had 39 regular pies and five specials. Some have been named after family: Gardella’s great aunt (”The Gracie”), a great uncle (”The Fiore”) and Joe Benny’s Bocce Team (”The Bocce Foccacia”). Gardella has also named pies after patrons.
“The customer can look at a menu and say, ‘This is my pie,’” he said. “About a year ago, I tried taking a pie off of the menu. And that customer that created it came in, and sure enough, ‘Where’s my pie?’ so I put it back and I said from that moment on, we’re just gonna keep it going. And if [the menu’s] a phone book, it’s a phone book.”
You can see and taste some of Gardella’s family history when visiting the Little Italy location. The “Benny’s” in the restaurant’s name comes from Gardella’s middle name, Benjamin, which is also his maternal grandfather’s name and the name of a pie, “The Benny.” Family pictures hang along the back wall and you can taste the legacy of his garden in “The Pasquale.”
“It has Peppadew peppers. My grandfather [grew] them and we’ve been keeping the seeds going. My Uncle Nino in P.G. County still throws them for me. I pickle them and then I preserve them in an olive oil, garlic and oregano mixture,” he said.
There’s more than just pizza. Friends rave about the burrata, sandwiches and meatballs. Gardella says he makes about 200 of those every Saturday.
I’m a pescatarian, but my colleague, Audience Editor Krishna Sharma, said of the meatballs: “It’s a very comforting flavor. The texture is really soft, almost melts in your mouth. It’s wonderful.”
The comfort that Sharma was picking up on may have been influenced by recipes developed by Gardella’s mother and grandparents.
A proud first-generation Sicilian, Gardella was inspired to open his own focacceria after spending summers in Messina, the Sicilian town where his family is from.
“My family friends had [a foccacceria.] So I would eat it, I’d enjoy it. And then I come back to the states and I’m like, ‘I can’t find pizza like this.’ It’s not traditional. It’s not like a New York-style.”
He wanted to open in an Italian neighborhood. And when he saw an empty building on High Street 10 years ago, Gardella said he liked the intimacy of the space and the existing liquor license. At 35, he started renting the property from the owner of La Scala, a popular restaurant in the neighborhood, and later purchased the building.
Over the years, the menu has grown — from just six pizzas. And the size of the pies, now 10 by 6 inches, was adapted to fit the small convection ovens purchased because they fit inside the narrow kitchen.
“I could go out and buy a fancy oven, but these little hot boxes do what I need them to do,” he said.
As I sat at the bar eating horizontal strips of the sweet and tart “Baltimore Foodie” (minus the sausage) and the veggie-laden “Pasquale” (bonus points for the escarole), I watched Joe and his four employees give as much attention to what was happening in the bustling kitchen as they did to everyone who walked through the door.
Ralph Borgess, owner of a home inspection company, always orders the meatball sandwich, “The Harrison Hero.” Borgess said he discovered Joe Benny’s when he was inspecting a house across the street — and tells anyone who moves into the area to stop in..
“This is the only place I come,” Borgess said. “That should say enough.”
When asked what pizza places he likes to visit, Gardella shouts out Matthew’s Pizzeria, Frank’s Pizza and Pasta, Pizza di Joey, Paulie Gee’s and Hersh’s. He said support among small business owners is important.
“I’d like them to do the same to me and everyone, right? We’re kind of in this together,” Gardella said. “That’s how I look at Baltimore.”