Over the past several years, Baltimore's pizza scene has blossomed, with the opening of new, great pizzerias all across the city. These restaurants tend to have a few things in common: reliance on fresh ingredients, excellent dough and sauces, and friendly atmospheres with a little more polish than the traditional pizza joint.
Joe Benny's, which opened in a tiny Little Italy space last spring, has all those things, though it's not a typical pizzeria. It's a focacceria. Or, in layman's terms, a place that uses focaccia bread as pizza dough.
Owner and chef Joseph Gardella learned to make focaccia pizzas during trips to his family's Sicilian hometown; they are a specialty there. He opened Joe Benny's to share the food he loves with Baltimore — and Gardella's pizzas are worthy of love.
Scene & Decor Around 6:30 on an early summer Thursday night, Joe Benny's was quiet, with only one table occupied and a few friends having drinks at the bar.
The restaurant is small, with about 20 seats. We picked a table toward the back of the narrow space, where we could take in the restaurant's simple, family-focused decor, including several black-and-white photos and an utterly charming needlepoint of Sicily.
Drinks We started with cocktails — the blood orange and vodka "Sicilian screwdriver" ($5) and a pomegranate, orange soda and gin "Sicilian gin and juice" ($5). Both drinks were as good as they needed to be — easy to drink and well-balanced — though neither was particularly powerful in terms of flavor.
A glass of MandraRossa Nero D'Avola ($6), a fruity red from Sicily, was a more satisfying choice. With big flavor, it stood up to our meals.
Appetizer In addition to focaccia pizzas, Joe Benny's offers a short and appealing list of appetizers, salads and sandwiches. We started with a plate of burrata ($8), the gooey, irresistible mozzarella.
Served with a drizzle of olive oil and small squares of focaccia for smearing, the cheese's texture was lovely, but it was a smidge under-seasoned. Just a shake of salt would have brought its flavor to life.
Entrees Neapolitan pizza, with its thin, charred crust, is all the rage right now. But pizza built on pillowy focaccia, which Gardella makes fresh daily, can be just as appealing.
The pomodoro focaccia ($10) was simple and vegetarian-friendly, with fresh tomato and mozzarella tossed with tons of garlic and basil. The result was bright but well-seasoned and savory.
We couldn't resist the fiore ($12), which tops the focaccia with red sauce, mozzarella and meatballs. Gardella prides himself on his meatballs, which are also available as an appetizer, and he should. The meat was seasoned and cooked nicely and, with the sauce, cheese and crust, the pizza was satisfying and comforting in the best way.
Soft and fluffy, the focaccia was a good base for toppings but even on its own, it tasted great. The seasoning was spot on, with just enough salt to be interesting.
Both focaccias were probably big enough to share, though we were happy to take home our leftovers (both reheated well in the oven the next day).
Dessert During our visit, only one dessert was available, but it was a good one. Bianco e nero ($7), which means "black and white" in Italian, was a trio of small cream puffs coated in chocolate hazelnut cream on the outside and filled with vanilla cream.
We made very quick work of the cream puffs. Sweet dessert lovers should not miss them. And they should not plan to share.
Service In the kitchen, Joe Benny's is still largely a one-man show, with Gardella doing the lion's share of the work. During our visit, he was also behind the bar and came to check on our table once or twice, but his waitresses are capable and friendly enough to handle the floor on their own.
The waitress serving us and the trainee tagging along were both kind and accessible, checking on us at just the right intervals. Timing from the kitchen was good, too, making for a pleasant meal all around.
When we left Joe Benny's, only two other guests remained. The quiet meal was relaxing but the place deserves more buzz. The cozy space, friendly personalities and good food will shine when Joe Benny's finds itself filled with a big, boisterous crowd — and it will.
Back story: Joe Benny's, Baltimore's first official focacceria, opened in Little Italy last April. The owner, Joseph Gardella, grew up in Prince George's County but frequently visited relatives in Messina, his family's hometown in Sicily. Joe Benny's focus on focaccia pizzas is a nod to the food Gardella ate during those trips.
Parking: Street parking and Little Italy Garage at Bank and Exeter Streets
Signature dish: The fiore focaccia provides a glimpse at two things Joe Benny's does well: focaccia and meatballs. The doughy base is fluffy, with crisp edges, the sauce bright and mozzarella creamy, and the meatballs are soft and well-seasoned.
Where: 313 S. High St., Baltimore
Contact: 443-835-4866; joebennys.com
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; Dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Satisfying focaccia pizza and a welcoming vibe add up to a great new addition to Little Italy.