Donna Benfatti is one of the most versatile people you will ever meet. She is described as a devoted mother and grandmother, an adoring wife, a faithful friend and a dedicated businesswoman, whose creativity and attention to detail is unmatched. The unbridled passion with which she juggles the many roles in her life, and the inconceivable catastrophe she was forced to overcome is awe-inspiring. To hear her story, many might come to see her as a modern day Wonder Woman.
Though born in New Orleans, Donna was raised, with her sister Debbie, in Arabi, Louisiana. Her parents, Elliot and Sybil Gaspard opened the Arabi Food Store in 1972 and instantly became fixtures in the community. It was here where Donna got her first taste for the restaurant business. She learned a lot about the business from her parents and was inspired by their incredible work ethic. However, the one thing she admired the most about her parents was their extraordinary relationship. “My mom and dad were so loving,” Donna recalled. “They were always surrounded by family and friends, and loved to entertain. They were our role models, not only in business, but also in our relationships.”
Donna loved her life in Arabi. It is where she met and married her husband Mark Benfatti, raised their children, Mandy, Megan and Dana, and where they both opened and ran four successful businesses. Friends and family were minutes away, and she and Mark were both very active in the community. Together they were living the American dream and together they would endure a nightmare.
Like most, Donna, Mark and their families packed up a few belongings and evacuated their homes to escape Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, the Benfatti’s not only lost all of their personal belongings, their two homes and their businesses—two diners, a coffeehouse and the brand new original N’Tini’s. They also lost their community, what had always been home. For them, and many more families and businesses of St. Bernard Parish, there simply was no going back home. “I began to feel like Gilligan, from the SS Minnow,” Mark recalled. “We packed for three days, never to return—we were castaways.”
It was, and at times, still is a struggle. The Benfatti’s, with nothing more than the few clothes in their suitcases, fought back and picked up the pieces to find a new life and a new community in Mandeville. Their grief originally led them to believe they wanted out of the restaurant business. However, opening N’Tini’s became their salvation. It also became the gathering place for many of their friends forced to flee St. Bernard after Katrina. With their old friends, came new friends, and N’Tini’s rate of success grew in one year to what would normally take about five.
“Rebuilding our lives and business after Katrina has been a difficult, yet rewarding experience,” Donna said. “It forced us to take a closer look at what is really important in our lives…to reassess our priorities. Today, we are taking the time to enjoy our everyday lives, surrounding ourselves with old and new friends, and making the most of our time with family. I am very proud of how far we’ve come and excited to be settled into our new home and community in Mandeville.”
For those who have enjoyed the delectable fare and entertaining atmosphere of N’Tini’s, you have probably already met Donna. She is usually right at the front door, always greeting you with a smile and making sure you have everything you need for an enjoyable dining experience. It is that attention to detail that has helped to make N’Tini’s the fun and successful business it is today. “Donna’s greatest strength is her compassion for others,” Mark said. “She is amazing with our employees and phenomenal with our children. At the restaurant, she is valuable, but at home she is invaluable. She has provided our children with more than I ever could.”
Donna is extremely creative and has a remarkable knack for designing, staging and decorating homes. Though she considers it to be a hobby, as she’s had no formal training, it is obvious she is a natural just by looking at the elegant décor of N’Tini’s. Not only is she responsible for its beautiful atmosphere, she just recently put the finishing touches on their brand new banquet facility called the Lagniappe Room. In response to the needs of their customers, this adjacent room is the perfect place for luncheons, business meetings, Mardi Gras parties, rehearsal dinners or cocktail parties. With, its own private entrance, bathroom, bar and projection screen, it can accommodate a seated dinner of 64, cocktail/buffet party of 100 or even a business PowerPoint presentation. It is the perfect complement to fun dining in an elegant atmosphere that is N’Tini’s.
There is one word that best describes Donna Benfatti—caring. She truly cares for those around her—her friends, family, customers and staff. To her friends and family, she is fiercely loyal and will protect your every confidence. Her children rely on her sage advice and have picked up her gift for entertaining. Her customers benefit from her attention to detail, while her staff has come to see her as a nurturing mother-figure. For Donna, she just feels really blessed, and is happy to have found home again.
Check out N’tini’s on Northshore To Do! Voted Best Restaurant for The Peoples Choice Award for 2011
Written by Francie Unger for Sophisticated Woman Magazine
Dining Diary by Tom Fitzmorris Saturday, May 7, 2011.
Dining With Indecisiveness. My Steak Cut Appears!
The Marys spent the day in Baton Rouge. Mary Leigh says that’s the only place to buy clay for making pottery and tableware. She made a lot of pieces in her classes at Tulane this year. She apparently has momentum, because she’s been turning out more pieces still on her wheel outside. Her designs are wonderful, and everything she does is more polished than the item before. Mary Ann loves it all, of course, and is filling the shelves with our daughter’s work.
After three hours on the radio, I took an unusually delicious hour-long nap. The girls returned not long after I revived. Now that they’re home, I can take a shower. I still feel nervous in the tub, what with nothing to grab hold of in case I slip on my one good foot. But I’m getting the hang of it. It’s all about leverage, and figuring out a route of short hops for my weight. I hope I never have to use these skills again.
I haven’t been out to dinner since last Sunday. Especially since I’m showered and fresh, I think I’m due. I suggested Bosco’s, since that’s on Mary Leigh’s A-list, and she is the one who must be pleased. But that didn’t do it. What she wants is a wedge salad. But now I had a hunger for Bosco’s. We compromised on N’Tini’s, where we have not been in months.
Lots of new dishes. Our waitress Helen alerted us to the best of them. For me, it came down to a choice between the pork chop with a Steen’s glaze or something called a Mandeville cut sirloin strip–both recent additions. Helen said go with the sirloin.
First onion rings, sliced too thick and fried in oil that was too hot. The latter issue makes the coating fall off, and it did. Next came a unique meeting of cultures: fried green tomatoes Caprese. So, the mozzarella and basil and tomatoes of a classic Capri salad, with the tomatoes fried. This restaurant has entirely too many fried items on its menu.
Mary Leigh kept her date with her beloved wedge salad, which she says is very well made here. Mary Ann broke all her rules and had the prime rib she couldn’t get three days ago at Keith Young’s.
I ate beef, too. That Mandeville cut proved to be none other than what I have been suggesting for the past few years as the New Orleans cut steak: an extra-thick sirloin strip, cut into two pieces the size of a filet mignon, making two normal-size steaks. This was a little different in having the bone still attached–the top of the T-bone, to be exact. That was a good thing, and all of us agreed that it was spectacular.
N’Tini’s owner Mark Benfatti spent some time with us over dessert. Here is a restaurateur who relates extraordinarily well with his customers, and gives them exactly the kind of restaurant they want. Not too gourmet, but good enough. Big portions. Interesting specials, and lots of special events. Mark himself is convivial and funny. In the few minutes he sat with us, four or five people acting like long-time friends came to say hello. Most of them were just regular customers.
Two steaks for me in one week. And dessert at the end of this meal. This will not be one of the many weight-losing days I’ve experienced lately. But it’s Saturday.
When we got home, I shut myself in my little room and wrote a Mother’s Day poem for MA. It took me about two hours, until after midnight. I hung it in a spot where she’d see it, in case she gets up earlier than I do. I must be the first to mention Mother’s Day.
N’Tini’s. Mandeville: 2891 US 190. 985-626-5566.
N’Tini’s: Fun with plenty of Lagniappe!
By: Denis Bechac, Northshore Conifer
In celebrating N’Tini’s second anniversary on the northshore, Mark and Donna Benfatti have many reasons to celebrate and thank the community. N’Tini’s has been a tremendous success.
As recent transplants from St. Bernard Parish, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina, the Benfatti’s have entrenched themselves into the northshore community these past two years. They have won several awards, received numerous accolades and just recently, Mark has been elected to serve on the West St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Board. “It is a personal honor to have the opportunity to serve on the Executive Board of such a dynamic organization,” said Mark Benfatti.
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Review By Tom Fitzmorris
By: Paul Cimino
It isn’t always true that an “ill wind blows no good.” Sometimes good things can emerge from bad happenings. Such is the case of Restaurant N’Tini’s in Mandeville. The owners, Mark and Donna Benfatti, relocated to the Northshore from Chalmette, following the loss of their restaurants to Katrina in 2005. Their success as restaurateurs there followed them to Mandeville, where N’Tini’s has joined the ranks of our many fine-dining spots.
Dining at N’Tini’s is like going to a friend’s home. You’re immediately put at ease by the friendliness of owners and staff. With a seating capacity of 135 and an additional seating of 35 in the lounge bar, there is spacious room to relax and enjoy. Presently, there is no special banquet hall, but special arrangements can be made for special group occasions.
The atmosphere is extremely pleasant and conducive to much dining pleasure. The service is very attentive, but not intrusive and never excessive. The menu is a collection of foods that are savory to the fullest extent. Whatever your preferences, there is something for everyone, including steaks, seafood, salads, appetizers and gourmet sandwiches at lunch. Chef Ryan Helmlinger, an extraordinarily young and talented chef, creates gourmet flavors often found in dishes done by long-experienced chefs. But this talented artist brings uniqueness not only to his original delights, but also gives many old favorites a new twist.
My dining odyssey at N’Tini’s began with an appetizer of seared ahi tuna with ponzu and wasabi – an incredible combination of flavors! Following this were jumbo crab cakes, served with a garlic remoulade – what a melody of flavors. Your taste buds will absolutely go into high gear when you bite into Chicken N’Tini’s, a breaded chicken breast, delicately served over angel hair pasta, topped with a velvety crawfish cream sauce. Indescribably delicious. And when you order N’Tini’s steaks, filets or tournedos, rest assured they’re cooked to perfection. They’re a melt-in-your-mouth quality.
For the dessert lovers, choices range from bread pudding to crème brulee. But the piece-de-resistance are Chef Ryan’s cheesecakes, particularly one called the Elmer Fudge Chocolate. Cheesecake flavors change several times weekly, all to the delight of “sweet tooths.”