There’s something to be said about calling a place home. Is it where the heart is? Is it where our family is? Or is it simply where we go to sleep at night? For one restaurant in Hoboken, it’s all of this and something more. Home is about community. And they’ve spent 52 years feeding theirs.
The mile square city of Hoboken brings to mind many things— baseball, ol’ blue eyes, and, to those who grew up in the area, Benny’s. Bari Drishti and his wife, Sophia, opened the local restaurant, Benny Tudino’s, in 1968 at 622 Washington Street, where it has remained ever since. The following year, 1969, they welcomed their first son, Eddie Drishti, and in 1971 their second son, Arbend Drishti, was born. The location is beyond business. This is a place of family.
“We’ve been here and we grew up here. We lived on the first floor above the restaurant. This is our community. Everyone knows us. People even look at me and just say, ‘Benny’s son?’,” Arbend Drishti said. Bari ‘Benny” Drishti passed away in 2015, three years shy of the milestone 50th anniversary of the cornerstone eatery he created. But his legacy, and recipes, live on. “It’s a honor to continue on. We’re here. It might not be my fathers face, but they know us [my brother and I]. It’s the same. And people appreciate it.”
The Drishti’s credit the restaurant’s success to one thing— consistency. The same location, the same family, and the exact same ingredients. It’s a walk down memory lane. The building’s interior is a true old-school style pizzeria— booths in front, tables in the back; photos of families old and new on the walls; images with notable celebrities; columns, drapes and oversized mirrors; and the smell of classic, New York style pizza. While other establishments change hands, expand to other locations, or shut down entirely Benny’s acts as a time capsule of a pizzeria style reminisce of yesteryear.
“People like going back in time. It’s a moment from their lives that they can revisit,” Arbend said of the patrons that return. Sometimes customers drive for hours, and sometimes it’s a reunion after a decade of being away.
The restaurant is a return to innocence for those who grew up in Hoboken. Days of bringing their kids or grandkids for a meal, high school students dropping by for a slice, first dates over a pie in one of the booths. Many even remember hearing Bari’s singing voice as it echoed throughout the restaurant.
“He would sit at the table and sing. At the house, he would sing. He sang because he loved it, he was a passionate person. He even had his own CD,” Arbend mentioned, pointing to the CD framed on the wall.
As the years roll on, Benny’s is about revisiting moments as much as it is about creating new ones. The kids of the past are all grown up and now they bring their own families to pass on a nostalgic tradition— going back to Benny’s.
“One time, a guy dropped in. He just got in from Florida and this was the first place he stopped. Anytime someone gets into town this is always the first place they stop by,” Eddie recalled. “My father used to say, ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’ We kept the food the same, and people keep coming back.”
Benny’s was made famous by their signature menu item– larger than life slices. The 32 inch pie was conceptualized by their uncle John who came to work for them in the 80s. It’s a slice so identifiable, in fact, that the restaurant’s catchphrase, “Home of the Largest Slice” was patented by Sophia. And the flavor is equally as memorable. No frills, nothing trendy, just a good, back to the basics, cheese pizza.
But the story behind Benny Tudino’s truly breaks the stereotype on what quality pizza should be, or where it should come from.
Bari Drishti was born of a Calabrese mother and an Albanian father. He immigrated to the United States from Albania in the 1960s and began working for Mama Leone’s in New York City. There, Bari learned the inner workings of an Italian kitchen. He loved Italian food and the sense of closeness it brought to his own mother’s cooking. He wanted to open up a place of his own but there was one hiccup. No one could pronounce his Albanian name. So, he went by his Italian nickname, Benny.
Soon thereafter, Bari left Mama Leone’s, made his way across the Hudson and decided on Tudino’s Bakery in Hoboken, at 622 Washington Street, to be the location of his restaurant. But he knew that in order to break the stereotype of quality Italian food, and keep up appearances, he had to blend in to be successful. And so, to pay homage to the bakery before him, Bari named his restaurant Benny Tudino’s. The Italian sounding name gave his restaurant a fighting chance to succeed, or at the very least prove itself. However, he never denied his Armenian roots.
When the doors first opened, to save money, Sophia worked behind the counter and Bari paid the high school kids in pizza, who then raved about it to their friends. Word spread quickly.
“As a kid, I remember a guy was eating a slice of pizza in front and it was a total mess. The cheese was everywhere, on his clothes, oil dripping. I told my father and all he said was, ‘That’s the best advertisement there is’. And he was right,” Arbend remembered. “My father had good business sense. But it was more than that, he was a very generous man.”
Eddie added, “We thank God for what we have, but it’s also good to give back.”
The brothers recalled the days of their father giving away slices to those who couldn’t afford to eat, vowing that no one should go hungry. Today, they carry on their fathers memory by serving their community both in the restaurant and outside of it. Both serve on the Hoboken Police Department; Eddie is a Lieutenant and Arbend a Sergeant. And the restaurant itself donates food to the hospitals, shelter, high school, or really anyone that needs a meal.
“Our own staff kick us out for giving away too much business,” Arbend laughed. “We always say ‘it’s on us’. We can’t help it. We just like to feed people.”
As COVID-19 takes a toll on all small businesses, make your way back to Benny’s and order directly from their website or, better yet, stop by in person and grab a slice of community.