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Inside ‘A Chef’s Life’ Star Vivian Howard’s New Restaurant

Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is a relaxed red-sauce joint in Wilmington, NC

Vivian Howard and Ben Knight
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Vivian Howard’s made good on her plans to open a red-sauce joint. The chef — best known for her Southern cooking at her essential Kinston, NC restaurant Chef and the Farmer as well as for her television show A Chef’s Life — and her husband and business partner Ben Knight soft-opened Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria last night, with the full public opening slated for December 12.

Howard tells Eater she “felt really good” about last night’s service. “A lot of it is thanks to our chef de cuisine Jim Diecchio,” she says. “He’s basically the reason I’m a whole human being right now.”

Benny’s is Howard’s first new opening in about four years, and her first in Wilmington, North Carolina. Earlier this fall, Howard told Eater that part of the appeal of the popular North Carolina destination was that “Wilmington’s growing without me.” While she’s in many ways a pioneer among big-city chefs who decide to open in small towns, she said that Wilmington — a bigger city with a healthy tourism industry — doesn’t need her to be an advocate in the same way Kinston does. “Wilmington is going to continue to grow, and if we open an excellent restaurant and push to keep it excellent, then it’ll be successful no matter who I am or if I’m on TV or not.”

Now that she’s there, she is excited about “be[ing] a part of changing the narrative on Wilmington. It’s a really cool town with a lot to offer. I don’t think people think of it as a food destination right now, but it has the potential to be one.”

She hopes Benny’s will be a part of that change, with its wood-fired oven and Neapolitan-style pizzas. The restaurant will also serve risotto and pastas, like cacio e pepe and rigatoni, a selection of antipasti, and an array of fried fare that even includes a nod to Howard’s culinary identity: a Southern fried-chicken Parm with hot honey and pickled peppers.

Take a look around Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria:

Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria [Facebook]