Eatery celebrates Dominican roots

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Isabella Bensimon, the owner of one of Forest Hills’ newest Italian restaurants, Villa Isabella, is no newcomer to the food world.

“I grew up in a kitchen in Santo Domingo,” Bensimon said. “My dad owned an Italian restaurant there, and my sisters, brothers and I would work there all the time. I love Italian food. It has become one of my greatest passions.”

Bensimon, a health food enthusiast who said she spends “24 hours a day running and thinking about my restaurant,” opened the eatery along with her husband, Jacques Bensimon, on Nov. 18. Located at 103−19 Metropolitan Ave. in Forest Hills, the restaurant offers anything from Chilean sea bass Livornese and chicken Florentino to fettuccine puttanesca and fresh cannolis. The business sells a slew of desserts from tiramisu to creme brulee, most of which are made by Bensimon’s older sister and one of the restaurant’s chefs, Regina Santini.

“There’s something for everyone here — the moms and dads, the young couples on dates, the kids,” said Bensimon. “A 4−year−old came in here the other day with his family, and he told us he was crazy about the cheese ravioli. This is his new favorite restaurant.”

Inside, Villa Isabella is a far cry from the often hectic Metropolitan Avenue just outside its doors. As soon as customers step into the building, they are greeted by a water fountain mounted on the wall, soft lighting, vintage posters, and plants everywhere.

“I love green,” Bensimon said. “I love plants. I wanted them to be everywhere. They’re very soothing.”

A large white piano sits next to a wall mural of an Italian side street, and Bensimon said a pianist comes to play and sing every Friday and Saturday night.

“It’s very romantic,” she said.

Despite the country’s recent economic woes, Bensimon said her restaurant has been “very busy,” and individuals from Long Island to Forest Hills and Howard Beach frequent the place.

“When we opened, there were 190 people who wanted to come in at the same time, and I had to make some of them wait because we can only have 145 people in here,” she said. “The grand opening was very festive. We had people doing the tango, someone playing the piano and, of course, lots of good food.”

In addition, she said, the entree prices are reasonable ($10.75 for cheese ravioli, $21.95 for shrimp scampi, or $17 for veal Florentino, for example), which helps to entice people to come to the restaurant even if they are trying to scale back financially.

Bensimon, who now lives on Long Island, knew she wanted to open a restaurant in Queens after moving from the Dominican Republic to Rego Park 24 years ago.

“We love it here,” she said. “You could not ask for a better, more perfect place to open a restaurant.”

Updated 6:38 pm, October 10, 2011
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