Ciao, La Cucina

Ciao, La Cucina

After nearly four years of running their down-to-earth Italian joint on Water Street, Franky and Meridith Benincasa are moving on. La Cucina will be closed by the time you read this.

Why? Two reasons. One, the Benincasas have a good incentive to leave: the chance to sell their restaurant to Bill Atwood, whose nine-story Waterhouse project was approved by the city last year for eventual construction on the current site of the clothing boutique Eloise. Two, the Benincasas have a very inviting somewhere else to go: They’ll relocate to Lexington and take over the Sheridan Livery Inn from Franky’s parents.

By the time you read this, Franky and Meridith Benincasa will have served their last meal on Water Street. But countless other meals (and fresh sheets) are in their future.

Running the inn sounds like a bigger job for these two: It includes not only a restaurant but 12 guest rooms and a banquet hall. Franky says they’ll move the menu, currently a “varied American” selection, more toward a Southern sensibility (“with my Italian accent”). We asked some leading questions about how bittersweet this all must be, but detected mostly excitement from Franky. Bon voyage to the Benincasas.

Trump cart

Spring means many things in Charlottesville—blooming redbud, a short-lived citywide passion for running, and the inability to stroll the Downtown Mall without tripping over hordes of al fresco diners. (Also, the inability to dine al fresco on the Mall without some stranger peering at your entrée.) Ah, ‘tis glorious. This year, spring will also mean a new option for quick meals: Patrick Critzer will open a gourmet food cart called Hamdingers, and park it in Central Place, in the second week of April.

Only in Charlottesville would a mobile one-man eatery boast a menu like this: teriyaki tofu skewers, bacon-wrapped dates, mango pudding and locally made sausages—all served in biodegradable packaging made from corn. In other words, this is no roach coach. Critzer calls it “a rotating selection of fancy treats,” always to include sausages, hot dogs and a veggie option. “Within those bounds I can try as many ethnicities and styles as I can think of,” he says.

Critzer’s prepared for this venture not only by laboring locally at A Pimento Catering and Tokyo Rose, but through a sort of independent study of food-cartism undertaken in—where else—New York City. “I spent a whole day tasting from food carts,” he says. “I was watching the ergonomics of how they situate themselves at the carts and how they lay them out—the hallal guys with the lamb and the chicken, the tamale ladies, the goat skewers.” If you’ve been to any events at the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative lately, you might have seen Critzer outside, giving away chicken skewers and rehearsing his moves.

Why open a mere cart when one could run, well, a restaurant? Um, it’s easier. “I feel I’d be working 100 hours a week if I have a restaurant,” Critzer, the father of an 8-year-old, wisely explains. “If it’s raining or I don’t feel like going in, I don’t have to.” He likes being the man on the street, too. “There’s a lot of ego and vanity involved in [opening a restaurant] and creating a setting,” he says, “but I want to give people the food directly.”

Saving face

Looks like whatever happens inside the former Hardware Store building now that it’s owned by Octagon Partners, the facade won’t change too much. The city’s Board of Architectural Review, at its March 20 meeting, approved a proposal from architect Mike Stoneking to make minor changes to the Mallside entryway (like adding a second door, meant for upper-floor access, to the east of the existing one, and taking down flagpoles) and tabled discussion on the Water Street side. For more on this story, see the Development section on page 10; meanwhile, we’ll keep an eye on Octagon’s plans for the interior.

Got some restaurant scoop? Send your tips to or call 817-2749, Ext. 48.

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