Restaurant News & Reviews

Kinston chef Vivian Howard has conquered farm-to-table restaurants. Next up: pizza

Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington has a menu with an eight-pizza roster of pies that includes the classic of classics, the margherita – just tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil.
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington has a menu with an eight-pizza roster of pies that includes the classic of classics, the margherita – just tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil.

In the film “Home Alone,” a generation witnessed a form of culinary injustice as older brother Buzz stuffed the solitary slice of cheese pizza into his mouth before younger brother Kevin McCallister could find it.

That cinematic moment is celebrated on the menu of Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, the newest restaurant from Kinston chef Vivian Howard and husband Ben Knight.

The restaurant, which opened this month in the growing South Front District of Wilmington, marries old-school red sauce and garlic knot nostalgia with the trend of wood-fired ovens and creative takes on a modern Italian restaurant.

“Our plan for this place was for it to be fun and really approachable and delicious,” Howard said. “The food that people want to eat.... Building Benny’s has been as much about seeking out an aesthetic as making a pizzeria. We’ve been eating pizza our whole lives.”

Howard and Knight own the award-winning Chef & the Farmer and the Boiler Room. Howard also is the James Beard-winning host of the PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.”

Vivian Howard never thought she’d move back to eastern North Carolina. But when her parents offered to help her and her husband Ben open a restaurant in Kinston, they packed up their New York City lives and came back to the south. Twelve years lat

The name comes from their childhood nicknames: Benny for Knight and Big Time for Howard. Howard’s father, John Howard, gave her the nickname as she showcased an early talent for entertaining. Dueling ovens at the restaurant are named Big Time (all wood-fired) and Benny (with gas assist).

On the menu, a lineup of eight pizzas features the classics: a margherita, a pepperoni and one dubbed the “Guilty Pleasure” with pineapple, chili, mint and speck aimed at reversing the stigma against Hawaiian pizzas.

That all-cheese Kevin McCallister is a whimsical ode to the slice that got away. But this cheese pizza, made with the gentle funk of Grayson cheese and energized with housemade hot honey, is for the generation that grew up with “Home Alone” and are perhaps raising a Kevin and Buzz of their own.

bbtp_credit baxter miller-18
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, NC, takes its name from the childhood nicknames of Vivian Howard, whose father called her “Big Time,” and her husband, Ben Knight, who was called Benny. Baxter Miller

Howard and Knight are a house divided on anchovies (she loves them, he doesn’t), but agree the “Broccoli Rob” puts the famously fishy fish in the best light.

“I’m an anchovy lover,” Howard said. “I love to introduce people to anchovies, but in a sneaky way. People have the wrong idea, because they haven’t had good ones.”

Benny’s also has pastas and salads, including a house salad for which Howard said they drew inspiration from the big communal bowls at Olive Garden. There are sardines and garlic knots on the antipasti menu and a section of fried items, from a frito misto to a Southern fried chicken parm, made with creamy and salty stracciatella cheese, hot honey and pickled peppers.

With the pizzeria, Knight said he and Howard were looking to build a place that was fun to take a family.

“We have a lot of fun takes on the menu and some adventurous stuff for those who fancy themselves sophisticates,” Knight said. “Whole sardines, high quality anchovies, squid ink pasta.”

This is Howard and Knight’s first restaurant outside Kinston and has meant months of making the hour-and-a-half trip back and forth to Wilmington. Knight doesn’t rule out future restaurants, but said that conversation is a long ways off and depends on the success of Benny’s.

“Every project is a little different,” Knight said. “We don’t have a bag-in-the-box restaurant style. Each one has a unique personality, and we try to accentuate the space it’s in and create a unique environment.”

Drew Jackson: 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson


Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is at 206 Greenfield St., Wilmington. 910-550-2525 or It is closed Mondays.

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