Picture this: satiating bites of Italian-American classics, a bubbly Aperol spritz and a tune-filled jukebox, backdropped by the NYC skyline reflecting off the waters of the Hudson. Such a dining experience is hard to come by, but at Beneci’s in Weehawken, NJ, it’s just another Wednesday.
Located inside the Sheraton Lincoln Harbor, you might be thinking to yourself, “great, another hotel restaurant?” And I wouldn’t even blame you—I myself had similar reservations prior to my visit. However, what Beneci’s proves is that they combine the accessibility of a hotel restaurant with the consistency and quality of a standalone brick-and-mortar. It’s the complete package. Hotel guests and locals mingle for happy hour while couples and families sit down for complete dinners. Need to grab breakfast or brunch before heading into the city? No problem. Beneci’s is here all day.
It’s all thanks to a team of skilled faces running the ship. Food and Beverage Director Meritan Kraja—an expert in hospitality—oversees the operation along with Director of Sales and Marketing John Pursel. The skillfully attentive front-of-house team is spearheaded by General Manager Lori Crowley, who tells me that Beneci’s goal is to treat every guest like family. “When you eat at Beneci’s, it should feel like you’re eating at home.” This trio sets up the Beneci’s concept on a tee for Chef Ramon Perez—whose poise in the kitchen brings the restaurant to another stratosphere.
A New York native, Perez has spent over two decades honing his craft in the industry. Dominican food, pizza—you name it, and he’s probably spent some time cooking it. However, it is Italian food specifically that he describes to me as his favorite to cook. As soon as the first bites hit the table, his love for the cuisine became crystal clear.
A spread of fresh mozzarella, imported prosciutto and tomato was the first taste of Perez’s food that I was treated to. The mozzarella—extremely fresh and still glistening with its own juices—was anointed with fried leaves of basil, a delicate, but impactful touch. Frying the basil scales the floraility back a bit, while adding texture and variety to the cheese. Along with the salty prosciutto and zingy tomato salad, this was a no-brainer of an appetizer. Simple in nature and a constant on the menu for good reason. Perfect with a slice of toasted bread.
You’ll probably want to grab the meatballs while you’re at it. Simply put, they instantly transported me back to Sundays at my Grandfather’s house, sneaking tastes of sauce right out of the pot with pieces of torn bread. The meatball itself, a beef and veal mix, is slowly simmered in a rich tomato sauce, with a heavy sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano and crisp, olive-oil fried pieces of bread. Are meatballs anything new? Certainly not, especially for New Jersey but you can’t go wrong with a tried and true classic. When executed in the right way, it’s something I’m happy to eat every day.
Let’s keep the (meat)ball rolling in terms of classics, but this time, taken up a notch. Bolognese? Why not? A favorite dish of mine—and something I make at home often—I can be quite critical of the meaty pasta sauce. As expected, Beneci’s delivered. The slow-simmered symphony combines perfectly with chewy and al dente cascatelli—a pasta shape created by two-time James Beard Award-winner Dan Pashman. The unique pasta shape took three years to conceptualize and was designed to perfectly hold onto sauce. I’ve had the pleasure of trying this pasta shape before, but never with bolognese. Chef Perez was right to combine the two. It was a match made in heaven. The sauce itself layered, with plenty of carrots providing a sweetness that I am fond of in slow-cooked sauces. Along with salty Parmigiano, you really can’t go wrong. Again, Beneci’s takes another classic and turns the dial up a notch.
Beneci’s also offers a pretty stellar pizza menu. Perez explained to me that he looks to combine the best parts of both NY-style pizza and Neapolitan-style in his dough. A slow rise leads to layered flavor within it and a crisp outer shell that is common in New York City slice shops. This isn’t surprising considering his years running a pizzeria, but still, a pizza topped with braised short rib and truffle is certainly nothing to scoff at. A complex and alluring pie—one that anybody would be happy to eat.
Maybe you just need a light bite to go along with a drink at the bar. Look no further than the fritto misto—a medley of fried calamari and shrimp with pickled banana peppers and sweet marinara sauce to dip. The perfect standalone dish or addition to the rest of your meal.
My server insisted I try the chicken marsala. Tender pieces of chicken breast bathed in a marsala-spiked mushroom sauce? Well, you can never go wrong with that. His recommendation was on the money. The chicken is infused with the earthy mushroom flavor and comes draped over a bed of fresh pappardelle. It was a standout dish and I found myself continually sticking my fork back in for another bite even after I was full.
I managed to save just a smidge of room for dessert. Tiramisu (a must) and an affogato for good measure. You will never go wrong with creamy vanilla gelato combined with rich espresso. The juxtaposition of both temperature and flavor is something magical. Tiramisu can be a bit riskier, though. Sure, everyone loves it, but that doesn’t mean everyone makes it the right way. Happy to report that, as expected, this is not the case for Beneci’s—whose tiramisu is creamy and layered with plenty of dark and sweet flavors. A dusting of cocoa powder to finish is the only way I see fit.
On the liquid side of things, Beneci’s sports a varied wine list with plenty of high-end and affordable options. Along with wine comes a full cocktail list and selection of amaros—an absolute necessity for a 2020s Italian spot. Whether you like to start your meal with an Aperol Spritz or an Old Fashioned, Beneci’s has you covered.
New Jersey is brimming with Italian-American restaurants throughout its entirety. While the cuisine is certainly nothing new, it’s still refreshing to see a restaurant that takes pride in doing things the right way. At Weehawken’s Beneci’s, diners are treated to thoughtfully prepared bites and a variety of wines, beers and cocktails, served alongside unparalleled views of the world’s most iconic skyline. It’s a restaurant worth trying.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.