The CLOSED sign was on the door at Gocciolina, Aaron Benjamin's little Italian restaurant in an unassuming plaza on Guess Road, but the phone was ringing nonstop on a recent Monday afternoon.
Intermittently, a cell phone in the chef-owner's pocket would also jangle. With an apologetic sigh, he'd glance at the screen and put it away.
"Sorry. It's been a little crazy here lately," Benjamin says, referring to Gocciolina being named 2015 Triangle Restaurant of the Year by The News & Observer. "Our phone system can only hold 50 messages. I think we're going to have to get a new one, or hire someone. Or both."
In the hot-and-cold restaurant trade, these are good problems to have. The buzz about this 45-seat eatery—55, counting the small bar—has been building since it opened last summer. Many diners showed up right away because they appreciated Benjamin's work at popular spots such as Pop's Backdoor, Nana's, Watts Grocery and, most recently, Rue Cler, Pizzeria Toro and Guglhupf.
"We probably won't see some of our loyal regulars for awhile," Benjamin says. "They might not want to deal with the crazy rush, but they'll be back. And just like before, they'll bring their friends."
Word of mouth has been important to the restaurant's success. Much of it also stems from the year Benjamin spent training in Italy, where his plans for Gocciolina were formed. Thanks to an inheritance and his family's encouragement, Benjamin enrolled in 2007 in a program that focused on Old World ways of preparing traditional foods. The experience forever changed his approach to cooking.
"It was unbelievable. The best year of my life," says Benjamin, adding that he also trained and traveled in Spain, France and Croatia. "I'd never been exposed to so much beauty and different ways of cooking."
He briefly considered staying in Italy, but was homesick for his mother and sister, both of whom live in Durham. "It's something the Italians understand," says Benjamin, whose sister, Talitha Benjamin, recently starting working with him. "Family is everything."
While meals are not served family style at Gocciolina, the menu is designed to encourage sharing at table. There are nine nibblicious antipasti listed on the menu, including creamy marinated corona beans, meatballs with tomato sauce and parmigiano, and crispy fried eggplant with fresh tomato and gorgonzola. They're just $3 each if you order at least three. Vegetable sides range from $4 to $6.
"A lot of people come in, order a bottle of wine and share a bunch of small plates," says Benjamin, who insists that servers ensure a relaxed, hospitable vibe in the cozy dining room. "It's a fun and affordable way to spend an evening."
Main courses are budget friendly, too. Most pasta dishes are $8 or $9, with everything but spaghetti made from scratch in the large prep kitchen downstairs. A grilled steak can be had for just $9, with local pork and lamb chops topping the menu at $19 and $22, respectively. Different daily specials are posted in the dining room.
Benjamin hopes to grow the bar's offerings of Italian beers, wines and spirits, but is limited by the ABC Store system. Amaro and grappa flights are available, as are cups of stiff espresso to go with house-made panna cotta, chocolate almond torte and freshly filled cannoli.
While Benjamin tries to keep at least one table and the bar open for walk-ins, reservations are strongly encouraged as there is nowhere to wait while diners understandably linger over meals. He's already thinking about adding a raised deck to make room for more seating out back when the weather warms.
The phone rings again and Benjamin stares as its screen flashes 50 MESSAGES. He rubs his tired eyes and smiles. "I better start making more pasta for all these people."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Buzzy and busy."