Now that Check Please! Northwest has earned a permanent spot in my television-watching lineup, I’ve noticed how many restaurateurs tell a similar story: I moved here and couldn’t find a good spot for __________ (fill in the blank with Afghan food, proper Philly cheesesteaks, steakhouse food with a chef sensibility—you name it), so I opened a place of my own.
Ben Kulikowski (Benito to his friends) follows that tradition, nearly a decade after moving here from Chicago. He spent the past 11 months turning a former mailbox center in Ballard into a restaurant that will serve proper versions of his hometown trinity: deep-dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and the Chicago-style hot dog.
Kulikowski’s Benito’s Chicago Eatery will open later this month with a menu divided between those hearty classics and an ever-changing chalkboard list of seasonal plates. This, too, is a tribute to Kulikowski’s native city, highlighting the different ethnic foods that make up another facet of Chicago dining. Dishes will vary from Indian to German, over to French or Polish, and back to plates that just celebrate the owner’s new home state’s (ahem, vastly superior) growing season.
"Really what I wanted to do was showcase the love that Chicagoans have for their food,” he says. “We have Michelin-starred restaurants, and you know we have hot dogs.”
Windy City affection aside, Benito’s is sourcing most of his ingredients locally. The major exceptions are the hot dog’s requisite sport peppers and piccalilli relish, known for its disconcertingly green hue. His pizza recipe is modeled after that of Pizzeria Uno—a little cornmeal in the crust, cheese directly on top of the dough beneath toppings, and a blanket of chopped or pureed canned tomatoes rather than a sauce. Back home, Kulikowski favored the same no-frills Italian beef shop as my Chicago-born husband, ensuring that a significant portion of our household’s disposable income will eventually find its way to Kulikowski’s bank account, especially when the lady of the house is out of town.
But Benito’s isn’t going to be an all-out Grabowski destination; Kulikowski says he won’t be doing fried foods, meaning all these hefty plates will come with a seasonal salad or chips rather than fries (yes, there’s another dated Chicago joke to be made there).
Before moving to Washington, Kulikowski helped run a family company that made bulk wholesale food for caterers, restaurants and high-end department stores. The storefront at the corner of 15th Ave NW and NW 62nd St down the street from Ballard High School, appealed to him for its Chicago-esque cantilevered awnings and brushed brick outside. Inside he’s going for a spare, prairie-style vibe.
Benito’s will be open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Prices will range from about $7 to $10 up to the most expensive item, a massive $35 deep-dish pizza that can fill up five hungry adults. And, Benito’s will eventually deliver in the Ballard area, hopefully by this fall. Right now Facebook is the best place to keep track of the opening.