Walnut Creek, CA

Which Walnut Creek Italian restaurant works best for you?

Clay Kallam

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Montecatini's classic Caesar salad(Maggi Brown)

Montecatini or Benvenuti?

Each of these long-running Italian restaurants has its supporters, and each has survived the pandemic – among the other perils of restaurant ownership. Montecatini is the older, opened in 1989, while Benvenuti began as Salvatore’s in 1996. (Though Benvenuti’s name changed, the same family still runs it; and though Montecatini has different owners, it was bought by two employees who didn’t change much of anything.)

Both are traditional, with a pasta-heavy menu, Italian wines, a full bar, and local ownership. And the two are a minute’s walk apart in downtown Walnut Creek, though for some diners, that might as well be a mile. Some swear by Montecatini, while others opt for Benvenuti – and for many, never the twain shall meet.

But for those who’ve never been to either one, or have gotten so much into the habit of going to their favorite they never consider the other, here’s a quick guide to the differences. After that, it’s up to you.

Benvenuti

To be fair, we’ll go in alphabetical order, so Benvenuti gets the first look.

Location? Benvenuti is right across the street from the Walnut Creek library, a relatively new and attractive building, but it fronts a busy street – just like Montecatini. An edge to Benvenuti, oddly, is that it faces east, so the setting summer sun doesn’t add heat and glare. That means plenty of natural light illuminates the front room in the long summer twilights, and the outdoor seating area that’s tucked back a little from the street avoids the oven-like feel you sometimes get outside.

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This cake is worth the extra calories.(Maggi Brown)

As with Montecatini, the menu is filled with just what you’d expect. Benvenuti does have a few more antipasti choices, but Montecatini has more soups and salads. We’d give the nod to Benvenuti in the dessert category, but both places put plenty of food on every plate, so sometimes there’s just not enough appetite left to do justice to dessert.

One difference we noticed is that the cocktails might be a little more adventurous, as Benvenuti focuses a little more on the bar, but really, the difference is in the atmosphere. Benvenuti is quieter, maybe because there’s more space and the tables are more spread out, and the bright interior is a little more relaxing. That said, the energy level can definitely ramp up as the restaurant fills.

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As good as they look ...(Maggi Brown)

Montecatini

The Italian stereotype of a lively family gathering with lots of loud talk and laughter lives at Montecatini.

If you’re looking for a restaurant that overflows with conversation and energy, Montecatini is the winner. The tables are close together, with servers slipping between chairs to deliver food and drink, and voices have to be raised to be heard across the table. Some, of course, would say that Montecatini is just too loud, but naturally others would claim Benvenuti is just boring.

The service is professional at Montecatini, just as it is as Benvenuti, and there’s definitely a family, local-favorite feel. Families have come to Montecatini for years, and others have chosen it for special occasions, and the vitality is palpable.

In conclusion

If you’re looking for a more intense ambiance, Montecatini is the place for you. It’s a little darker, more crowded and a lot louder.

If you’re after a more intimate evening, Benvenuti would be the call, as the larger space and more serene setting makes conversation easier.

But either way, the food will be good, the drinks carefully made and the service will be attentive. And since both have survived for so long – Montecatini is in year 33 and Benvenuti in year 26 – they obviously understand their audience and how to cater to it.

And almost as impressive, they’ve managed to carve out two distinct identities despite being just blocks apart while serving almost the same menu. In the end, though, good pasta is good pasta, and good wine is good wine, so make a reservation for both and decide for yourself. Either way, in this “competition,” you’ll be the winner.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

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