By Josette Keelor
Cameron Rosberg was inspired by the Northern Shenandoah Valley when he named his downtown pizza restaurant.
Benny Meleto’s, which opened last fall at 19 E. Boscawen St. in Winchester and features oversized pizza, gets its name from one of the city’s biggest commodities: apples.
“Meleto’s means apple orchard,” Rosberg said on a recent spring afternoon when apple blossoms were in bloom and the area was preparing for the 91st Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival – April 27 to May 6.
So far, business at Benny’s has been fruitful.
It’s been “awesome,” said Rosberg, the restaurant’s owner and operator. “No complaints.”
Benny Meleto’s, which opened in November, specializes in pizza, but what it really sells is an experience.
The main thing customers will notice about the eatery is the size of its pizza, which rounds out at 28 inches in diameter.
Each in-house slice requires two paper plates.
Three slices go home in a 16-inch box, a standard large at many independent pizza parlors.
A full 28-inch Benny’s pizza box requires two hands and a certain amount of arm strength to navigate the walk back to cars or homes.
Rosberg, who was used to Anthony’s 16-inch pizzas in Charles Town before opening his business, said he considered those slices big compared to the standard 14-inch pizzas many chain restaurants now serve as their “large.”
But once you’ve been around Benny’s oversized pizzas, Rosberg said, “everything looks small.”
Rosberg’s restaurant is the 17th in a niche pizza business that started six years ago in Blacksburg, Virginia. Every Benny’s has its own style based on its location, Rosberg said, and business has been booming.
“Everything went very fast,” he said of how the company expanded from one location to 17, with more on the way.
The Benny’s pizza chain, which markets itself as “home of the Virginia slice,” began with Benny Marzano’s in downtown Blacksburg and has since grown to include locations around Virginia such as Lynchburg, Fredericksburg, Norfolk and Roanoke, as well as others in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas.
Richmond and Culpeper, Virginia, are among those requested by patrons for future Benny’s locations, Rosberg said, adding that a restaurant in Morgantown, West Virginia, is under construction.
But as much as Americans like pizza, not every pizza parlor is destined to be a hit.
“Finding the location is the hardest part,” Rosberg said.
Most Benny’s locations are in college towns or historic downtown districts, like Charlottesville, which has Benny Deluca, or Harrisonburg, which has Benny Sorrentino.
Winchester, founded in 1752, has its own historic downtown district, a massive draw for shoppers, diners, tourists and history buffs to its dozens of Old Town restaurants, shops, and museums. So, choosing to have a Benny’s storefront on Winchester’s Loudoun Street Mall was a no-brainer.
“It was always on the radar to open here [in Winchester],” Rosberg said.
Rosberg, 32, of Purcellville, Virginia, was working with his father and brother at Aaron’s Sales and Lease, 804 Berryville Ave. in Winchester, when he decided to go into business with Benny’s founders Zach Toth and Chris Brown, who co-own every Benny’s location, including Benny Meleto’s.
Having gained management experience from his family’s business, Rosberg said he was well-suited to managing a pizza parlor.
Benny Meleto’s offers a standard menu of cheese, pepperoni or sausage pizza. Monthly specials have included bacon cheeseburger pizza, garlic and mushroom pizza, and the “Wild Bill” chicken and hot sauce pizza.
Prices by the slice are $4 or $5, depending on toppings, and tax is already included.
Pies range in price from $30 to $38, and Benny Meleto’s also sells desserts, like its chocolate chip cookie pie.
The meat pizzas include a pound and a half of meat, Rosberg said, and each pie is generally meant to feed eight adults.
“I can eat two slices, but one is perfectly good.”
For adventurous guests, the restaurant offers a prize of $500 to anyone who can eat an entire pepperoni and sausage pizza in one sitting-an hour for amateur eaters or 15 minutes for competitive eaters. That’s 8 pounds of pizza, and so far Benny Meleto’s has yet to see any winners.
“[It’s] $40 to do it, and you get to keep the pizza if you don’t do it,” Rosberg said.
The Benny’s pizza challenge is only available during certain hours since Rosberg said he has to be there to confirm a win. Those interested should contact the restaurant to set up a time to try their luck at making Benny’s history.
Prizes also include a Benny’s challenge T-shirt and pictures on the Benny’s website and wall of fame. For more details, visit http://www.bennysva.com/Challenge.
Pizza plays a big role at Benny’s, but it’s only part of what draws in customers.
“I think we have a good atmosphere here, it’s laidback,” Rosberg said.
Since in-house seating is limited, he said he doesn’t host big events or offer reservations. But being downtown allows Benny’s to be part of area events, such as the Olde Towne Open Mini-Golf Tournament that’s scheduled for May 12 (rescheduled from April) and features creative, challenging and fun miniature golf holes in area bars and restaurants.
The tournament is hosted by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Civitan Club. Interested golfers can sign up at participating businesses or email OldeTowneOpen@gmail.com.
Benny Meleto’s is also conveniently situated to be a stop along downtown pub crawls, and Rosberg said his drinks menu includes two hard ciders from Winchester Ciderworks and four products from Escutcheon Brewing Co.
The variety of sodas, non-soda drinks and hard drinks is part of the Benny’s brand, Rosberg said. And the prices, which build in sales tax to make things easier on patrons’ wallets, include $1 soft drinks and $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon beers in 16-ounce cans.
“No one else has that price,” Rosberg said of the Pabst.
Benny’s has its own dough recipe and makes its own pizza sauce.
Monthly pizza specials always include one meat option and one vegetarian, and Rosberg said he can accommodate patrons with dairy sensitivities or preferences by offering a cheese-less pizza by special order. However, because of the type of dough required to maintain the size of Benny’s pizzas, he said gluten-free options aren’t available.
“It would be very hard to do,” he said.
The restaurant stays open till 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and midnight the rest of the week. For Winchester’s population of shoppers, tourists and students, Rosberg said the late-night hours have suited Benny Meleto’s well.
Patrons have their choice of table seating or bar stools along windows looking out on Boscawen Street toward the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. A red wall inside the restaurant features playful painted letters stating it’s “marked up like a wall in the 80s.”
“It’s a fun atmosphere,” Rosberg said. And though he has ideas for opening another location one day, he said for now he’s focused on making sure Benny Meleto’s is as successful as it can be.
If the last five months are any indicator, Benny’s will likely form deep roots in Winchester. And so might Rosberg.
“I’ll probably end up moving here,” he said. “I like Winchester.”
Benny Meleto’s, at 19 E. Boscawen St., Winchester, is open 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Contact Benny Meleto’s at 540-323-7036, at http://www.bennysva.com/BennyMeletos or on Facebook.