Bennani's Italian Restaurant in Dinuba
Nov 21, 2014 12:00AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett
That's ItalianDecember 2014
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
Frank Bennani is a self-described picky eater and the biggest critic in his own kitchen. Everything, he stresses, must be perfect. He lays out 300 spoons for tasting the food he prepares, because he says cooking is an improvisational art, like jazz. “It’s just like a musician that hears the orchestra play,” he says. “It’s not something that he’s really reading; he just goes along with it. It’s a talent. It’s something that’s given to you.”
The talent may be natural, like rhythm, but a passion for food was given to Bennani at a young age. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Bennani grew up at a culinary crossroad, where Moroccan hospitality and Mediterranean cuisines flourished. His family traveled widely, which gave Bennani access to a variety of cuisines that challenged and developed his young palate. But his real lessons began closer to home, in his mother’s kitchen. “That was where the love developed,” while watching his mother host and orchestrate large weekend parties, Bennani says.
It was a long road that began in his mother’s kitchen and led from Casablanca to Paris, and through New York and Los Angeles, and which ended in Dinuba. At 18, Bennani told his father he wanted to open a restaurant, but his father insisted that he get a college education first. Bennani agreed, and moved to Paris where he studied law while working part-time at an Italian restaurant. There, he learned the fundamentals of the industry. “I saw the process. I saw the ambience,” Bennani says. “It was beautiful.”
Bennani never would use that law degree. He transferred to a university in New York, and later became a real estate broker in Los Angeles. He opened multiple wireless retail stores, and moved to Dinuba to be near family. Through all the travels and ventures, his dream still lingered, and almost two years ago, Bennani finally opened his own restaurant in downtown Dinuba.
Bennani’s Italian restaurant is like a Moroccan oasis in a culinary desert. That’s not to say there aren’t good meals to be had in the Central Valley – but Bennani has set such a high standard for the foods that he enjoys that it was only natural he should apply the same standard to his own restaurant. He calls it the “wow effect,” the specific experience of an individual taste or meal to challenge and surprise the palate. Bennani first experienced that effect in France, “where everything was so calculated,” he explains. “That’s what I’ve tried to recreate.”
In order to create that “wow effect” in his own restaurant, Bennani traveled for three years, visiting the highest Zagat-rated restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco and everywhere in between. He tried every cioppino he could find, and then improved upon it.
While the menu at Bennani’s features traditional Italian dishes, like cioppino, veal picata, parmigiani and pastas, some dishes, like the rack of lamb, are served with a Moroccan touch – individually grilled, spiced with paprika and garnished with freshly chopped mint. But the real Moroccan influence is Bennani himself. “Moroccan hospitality,” he insists, “is unmatched.”
“I love to transport people,” explains Bennani. “When you come in here at night, you won’t feel like you’re in Dinuba anymore.” So Bennani recreated a mid-century Chicago style, “somewhere you can expect Sinatra to be sitting down,” he says. Many details help achieve that transformation: the high, gold-tiled ceiling, dark wooden benches, dimmed candles at every table, and gilt-framed paintings of Venice scenes, and Old Blue Eyes himself, crooning in the background.
Bennani’s aspires to present the complete package: hospitality, environment and good food. For him, it’s simple: the customer is king. “For you to honor me by coming to my establishment, that is like coming into my house,” he says. “Nobody should be unhappy.”
Bennani’s • 161 S L St, Dinuba
Open 11am – 9pm, Monday - Saturday