There is such thing as a free lunch.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, one of Hoboken’s most well known eateries, Benny Tudino’s at 622 Washington St., celebrates its 45th anniversary. From 11 a.m. till 6 p.m., the restaurant will hand out free slices of pizza as well as commemorative t-shirts. The day will also feature a mariachi band and an Italian band.
Music at the pizzeria harks back to owner Benny Drishti’s earliest days in the United States. It was 1963 when 26-year-old Bari Drishti — his given name, from his mother’s hometown of Bari, Italy — was newly arrived from Albania. In the U.S., friends soon began calling him “Benny,” and the nickname stuck.
He quickly found work at the famed Manhattan restaurant Mamma Leone’s.
“I worked in the kitchen, and I sang too,” Benny said in an interview earlier this month. (Leone’s was known for strolling singers and musicians who made their way around the tables.) It was during this period that Benny met Sophia, a lovely young teacher who soon became his wife.
A business opportunity in 1968 brought the happy couple across the Hudson to Hoboken. Benny’s cousin and a former priest — Father Tudino — had purchased 622 Washington St. It had previously been home to a Jewish bakery and luncheonette. The two men opened a pizzeria at the location — calling it Tudino’s — but things weren’t going well.
“They were old. They did deliveries by walking,” Benny recalls. “[My cousin] asked me, ‘Please Benny, come and buy this place; we can’t make it.’ ”
For $29,000, Benny purchased the business and the three-story building. He added “Benny” to the sign, keeping the Italian surname “Tudino” up there as well. And in October of 1968, he re-launched the pizzeria.
But Benny wasn’t certain he’d made the right decision.
“When I came here, Hoboken was terrible,” he remembers. “ ‘Oh boy, what did I do?’ I said when I bought the place. But I worked hard.”
An odd trade, and Stromboli
Benny and Sophia moved into the apartment upstairs. Sophia worked as a cook in the restaurant, and the couple began to raise a family. They had two boys, Eddie and Arbend. (Benny also has a daughter, Raimonda, back in Albania.)
Benny was excited to put his Mamma Leone’s kitchen experience to work, and found that he had a real passion for it. “To be a chef, you need to have a feeling for the dishes you make,” Benny said. “I have that. I love the kitchen. I love to cook.”
But hard work and enthusiasm didn’t immediately translate into success.
“Nobody said hello,” Benny recollected. “I was a new face in the town.” But things started to change when a young man offered a trade: For a couple of slices of pizza, he’d work behind Benny’s counter for a few hours. The fellow turned out to be rather skillful.
“He was a juggler, tossing the dough in the air!” Benny says. “The best pizzaman.” The young man soon made a stromboli using red and green peppers, ham, salami, prosciutto, and mozzarella cheese. Benny sliced the stromboli and put it on display by the front.
“You put this in the window, and see all those colors—it looks good! Makes you hungry,” Benny claims. “Everybody started buying them.”
People came for the stromboli, but they stayed for Benny’s special tomato sauce. He had begun developing its secret recipe while watching the chefs in the Mamma Leone kitchen. Exactly what’s in there, Benny will never tell.
Giant slices become legendary
And then there are those enormous 14-inch slices—“Home of the Largest Slice” as the sign out front boldly states. The slices have become the stuff of legend, inspiring random customers to take photos of their infants next to them.
Benny still doesn’t understand why they do this, but he dutifully tapes the pictures to the side of his pizza oven. And why giant slices?
The idea came from Benny’s brother-in-law, who ran Four Brothers Pizza on West Side Avenue in Jersey City. Business there had been slow until his brother-in-law started making the pies larger and larger. Customers really responded, so Benny borrowed the concept — and the rest is pizza history. (Four Brothers Pizza is still in operation, under different ownership, and still offers a “big slice,” but not nearly as big as Benny’s.)
Benny’s dedication to excellence has led to frequent appearances on best-of lists. Zagat has routinely honored the eatery, including nods as one of New Jersey’s top-5 pizzerias as well as the state’s “top restaurant for overall quality and value.”
So it’s no wonder that Benny has built an extremely loyal customer base over the years.
As Benny sits at his regular table outside or at the front booth, it is inevitable that pleased patrons will stop by to pay their respects. One of them is Michael Matera, who has been coming to Benny Tudino’s since the late 1980s. He especially loves the fresh, hot slices.
“You can’t get any fresher,” Michael says. “Slices sell quickly and constantly, so the pieman doesn’t need to reheat yours.” Michael and his dad eat there at least twice a month. Michael Sr. adds, “Benny makes us feel like we’re part of the family.”
The rich and famous also like to come by from time to time. During one of his last visits to Hoboken in the mid-1980s, hometown legend Frank Sinatra dropped in. (“He stayed till 2:00 at night; he kept me here!” Benny laughs.) In the ’90s, Benny took notice of a certain gentleman eating pizza. “I looked at him; he had a familiar face,” Benny says. It was none other than Judge Ito from the O.J. Simpson trial.
On Nov. 18 last year, another well-known visitor made an appearance at Benny Tudino’s. Vice President Joe Biden was touring Hoboken, witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. After a long day, Sen. Frank Lautenberg suggested getting a quick slice at Benny’s. The motorcade pulled up, and Secret Service held back throngs of photographers as the veep stood at the counter.
“He was very friendly, very sweet,” Benny recalls.
But did Biden enjoy his slice?
“He loved it!” says Benny. “You can see how he grabbed it and ate it.”
Benny Drishti has witnessed countless changes in Hoboken since 1968. “Look how beautiful it is now,” he says. Benny credits Steve Cappiello, mayor from 1973 to 1985, with helping to turn the city around. “They need a monument to him here,” Benny states. “Washington Street should be Steve Cappiello Street.”
Of course, there have been changes in Benny’s family as well. His boys grew up and both joined the Hoboken Police Department: Eddie is a sergeant, and Arbend is a police officer.
Benny now has five grandchildren, of whom he is exceedingly proud. His beloved wife, Sophia, passed away in 2004. “She was one of a kind,” he says. “You don’t find many women like that.”
Music has remained a constant. In 2007, after years of encouragement from friends, Benny returned to Albania to record an album (as Bari Drishti), Shkodra Ilire. His song “Ty Ty Ty” has more than 57,000 views on YouTube.
As the Italian band plays at the pizzeria’s 45th anniversary celebration on Sunday, Benny will likely be persuaded—without much arm-twisting—to croon a song or two. He’ll smile, laugh, and shake hands with customers he’s known for decades.
His philosophy for earning repeat business has been a simple one: “By giving you good, fresh food, you’re going to come back. I’m not here for one day. I’m here for years and years and years and years.”