It's been pretty hard hoeing for anyone trying to do nice food in Durham north of I-85. The last I remember was Patrick's in the old Ole NC Bar-B-Que spot at North Duke Mall, which died an unnatural death at the hands of its landlord. The farthest north I currently think of as decent food in Durham is Watts Grocery, which isn't even north of Club Boulevard.
Enter Aaron Benjamin, who used to be chef at both Pop's and Rue Cler near downtown. Aaron spent a year or so studying his craft in Italy; I also remember seeing Aaron working at both Pizzeria Toro and the now-departed Rockwood Filling Station by Scott Howell. I heard a few months ago that Aaron was planning something, but very quickly thereafter Gocciolina opened, earlier this month. Hours are currently Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 pm for dinner. Gocciolina currently has beer and wine, with a liquor license still pending. Aaron told me there was a restaurant of some sort there before he opened, so that made it easier for him to get going, which is nice.
Durham has an interesting history with Italian restaurants. On the one hand, we've had Pop's for a long time now, and been very happy to have it. On the other, we don't have a lot else: Both of the chains Olive Garden and Romano's Macaroni Grill have bailed, leaving us to go all the way to Southpoint and Maggiano's Little Italy, and that's just for chain Italo-American. Old local places have also fallen by the wayside. Suddenly now, we have Gocciolina in north Durham, with The Boot scheduled to open before fall in Rockwood, and The Rollout somewhere, but currently operating in pop-up mode out of Tom Ferguson's Rise at Southpoint. (N.b.: all these non-chain restaurants are linked in the sidebar.) It should be self-evident that Durham could use more good Italian food. And I guess location matters, which is what I'm scared about with Gocciolina. Are people going to drive up Guess Road past Carver Street to go to Aaron's place, or are they gonna order a delivery pizza and call it a night? It's not hard to get there. On the other hand, Honey's just gave up its long, tenured existence for a McDonald's and a BP convenience store (I'm not saying Honey's was fine dining, but it was often not bad diner food, and it was open 24/7), and it was just barely north of 85. So, Durham, what gives? We've been friends for a long time now. Are you locals gonna come out of those adjoining neighborhoods in droves? Are you folks farther away gonna get on 85 and drive less than a mile north up that nicely widened Guess Road to get there? If you need help getting there, it's just to the right of the Guess Road ABC store. ;)
I'd like to say it depends on the food. And it does, somewhat, but I'm not so stupid as to predict Aaron's success on just that. It seems like Aaron is making his pasta, which is a tribute to dedication if I've ever seen one (I love working with flour, but I hate rolling things out). I hear rumors of curing meats in the future. The word is getting out: I've seen news stories, and they have a Facebook page. Gocciolina's WWW site is bare bones [edit: website upgraded now], but gets you their phone number, and a picture of what looks like some pretty good spaghetti carbonara. The menu I saw looked tripartite: appetizers up top, most of which will come to table almost immediately; a second course of pasta in the middle, and I do mean a pasta course, somewhere between an appetizer and a main course in size; an entrée at the bottom, also a bit smaller both in size and price than what I imagine most Americans will be expecting. There are also a small number of Italianesque desserts, and homemade grissini on the table.
I say give it a shot. They're still in shakedown mode, in my opinion, so things are gonna change. Contact info is below.
3314 Guess Road
Durham, NC 27705-2106
Phone: 919 973 4089
Of course if any of my current army of readers has already made it there, you're welcome to leave comments with tales of rapture, indifference, horror, or just plain yeses and nos. All are welcome.