This story first published in the New Castle News.

What are the classic smells and tastes of the winter holiday season? Many would say the peppermint of candy canes, or spicy cookies such as gingerbread, or even boozy fruitcake. 

But lots of people also are sweet on small fishes, fried to a steaming hot crunch, still with their tails and scales on and tiny bones in, to be perfumed with a squeeze of lemon and dipped into nose-numbing cocktail sauce. 

This delicacy is called smelt or, by those who are familiar, smelts. 

And for a lot of people in and around New Castle, more than in many places, it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without them.

“People in New Castle would probably riot if we didn’t,” says Jonathan Benetas, explaining why he and his colleagues dedicate most of the day before Christmas to slinging smelts at Mister B’s restaurant on Route 65 in Shenango Township. 

“Smelts” is also on the sign atop Mister B’s along Route 65 in Shenango Township, Lawrence County, just outside New Castle. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

It’s one of several local establishments that serve this old-school delicacy at least seasonally, if not year-round. Smelts are particularly popular with people of Southern Italian heritage, who work them into their Christmastime Feasts of the Seven Fishes.

But people of other ethnicities who worked in the mills and the factories of Western Pennsylvania also love the fishes, which used to be “dipped” in huge quantities, using long handled nets and even buckets, in the spring as they run up tributaries to the Great Lakes. They also can be harvested from the sea, but freshwater ones are the best. 

Smelts have a longtime special place in the Benetas family, and they’re Greek. It’s not because it was their tradition to eat them. 

Jonathan Benetas begins the story: “When and why was my father, about 30 years ago.” 

In a vintage family photo hung at Mister B’s, Gus Benetas is held by his father, John Benetas.

His father, Costas “Gus” Benetas, was attending Duquesne University when his father, John, died in 1978, and so Gus paused his psychology studies to take over his father’s Sun Grill, a bar on West Washington Street in the heart of New Castle. Jonathan was 1. 

John’s widow, Zografia, helped keep the family financially afloat with her well-known seasonal Italian ice concession at Cascade Park. (Her grandson says she more than once turned down national companies who wanted to buy her recipe for lemon ice.)

Led by Jonathan’s mom, Carol Jo, the family also baked Syrian bread in their home basement and sold it around town. 

Gus Benedes, too, was a foodie, who gradually expanded the offerings at the bar to include, on weekends, “lamb on the rod” — kebabs — so good that it attracted hungry crowds from workplaces such as Shenango China. 

In 1989 he sold the bar to start a little restaurant in the current building just outside New Castle, Mister B’s, and was ahead of his time when he also started selling six-packs of beer to go. He sold so many that he set records for several brands, says his son.

Gus continued to serve his famous lamb, including in sandwiches on Syrian bread, and other food. Because customers clamored for them, that came to include smelts. 

Jonathan Benetas worked with his dad at the restaurant during high school before he went off to the Air Force. 

Jonathan took a job as a CSX locomotive engineer, but he never was too far from Mister B’s, where his dad grew smelts into A Thing. 

The smelts became so popular that at one point the restaurant placed in the window a sign you don’t see every day that still spells out in blue and red neon “Lamb & Smelts.” 

One of the neon signs in the window of Mister B’s in Shenango Township advertises two of the restaurant’s specialties. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The biggest day for smelts was always Christmas Eve, when cleaning, breading and frying so many orders for people’s holiday became an all-hands-on-deck assembly line. The work would start months earlier with the buying and cleaning of the fish and the taking of orders, which Gus carefully recorded in a business ledger. 

So important was this annual tradition that, in 2009, when his dad suffered a heart attack, Jonathan took a leave from his job so the smelt show could go on. 

He quit the railroad when his dad had a stroke in 2020 and, once again, took over the Christmas Eve smelts. 

And because his dad died in April, Jonathan once again will be leading the smelting operation, which he wouldn’t dream of dropping. 

Mister B’s owner, Jonathan Benetas, leafs through the ledger where he and his colleague keep track of customers’ Christmas Eve food orders. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“It’s our biggest day of the year,” he says. They’ll sell about 500 pounds for people’s holiday eve celebrations and a couple of hundred pounds in the days before and after.

This year, it’ll all happen at the original location, because they closed the Neshannock venue in the fall due to difficulties staffing it.

But they still use the big freezers there to store the frozen smelts. 

Earlier in the fall, the workers thaw and clean the frozen fish themselves, making sure all the heads and entrails are removed and, in a special touch, also removing the spines, so the two sides of each fish lie flat. 

That, Benetas will tell you, is how New Castle likes its smelts. 

A new restaurant tried to get in on the action last year but rather than butterfly the smelts, left them more or less looking like whole fish. That place closed. 

Mister B’s still follows Gus Benetas’ intricate, somewhat proprietary process to prepare and sell so many smelts. 

Mister B’s employee Tina Miller fields another call about smelts after the restaurant already was booked for Christmas Eve orders. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

This year, they started taking orders for Christmas Eve on Nov. 1, and before the end of the month, Benetas was telling people, “I’m booked up!” 

He and his employees offer to put people on a wait list in case someone else cancels, but they don’t get anyone’s hopes up. The odds are better on the restaurant’s game machines.  

They want to serve as many customers as they can, but they can’t just slip anyone in, the schedule is so tight. Benetas recently had to say no to a cousin.  

People will try everything to place an order, including fibbing that they already have or arguing that they’ve been ordering them for decades. “Then you should know you should call earlier,” Jonathan will tell them.

This is what Christmas Eve looks like at Mister B’s in Shenango Township, Lawrence County, where workers spend all day making orders of smelts to go. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

On Christmas Eve day, the restaurant is open only for people to pick up their pre-ordered smelts as well as calamari, chicken wings and grape leaves (based on Zografia’s recipe) and to buy beer. But the smelts are the main event.

The crew members arrive early in the morning and start frying smelts at a rate of 1pound per minute from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then they close for an hour to change the oil in the fryers and resume cooking smelts until 6 p.m. 

The rare order of smelts that doesn’t get picked up the restaurant workers nibble while they do their traditional gift exchange. 

They reopen Mister B’s the day after Christmas, when they’ll continue to get orders for smelts for New Year’s Eve. 

In the kitchen at Mister B’s, Carol Jo Hardsock, left, and Linda Maitland dip the butterflied smelts in egg wash and then flour. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

You can order the full menu on any day that Mister B’s kitchen is open, from around 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (It’s closed Sunday and on Monday is only open for beer to go.)

Smelts when available are $19.25 for a pound or $9.99 a half-pound. Sam at the Appliance Parts Center next door has been ordering 10 pounds every holiday since the beginning.

If you missed getting your order in for Christmas Eve, you might be able to order some on one of the days during the week before, and they’ll tell you how you can freeze them, and then when you’re ready to serve them, put them on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for one minute. 

“It’s been 30 years of experimenting to get them where they are,” says Benetas, who, with about a half-dozen workers, including his mom, will be a floury greasy mess on Christmas Eve. But they’ll be smiling. As she puts it, “We make it fun.” 

“For me, it makes me feel fulfilled,” he says. “I’m sure that’s why my dad was doing it.

 “We’re providing for the whole town basically — you know what I mean? 

“At least the people that get on the list.” 

Mister B’s in Shenango, Lawrence County, began taking pre-orders for Christmas Eve smelts on Nov. 1 and were completely booked by Nov. 28. This sign went up shortly thereafter, but the calls and requests keep coming. (Bob Batz Jr./ Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Mister B’s is located at 2034 E. Washington St. (state Route 65), New Castle, PA 16101. The location on Mercer Road is closed. Your iPhone may tell you differently.

You can find smelts closer to and in Pittsburgh, including fish markets and restaurants such as Penn Ave. Fish Co. One place still taking orders for its legendary butterflied smelts for Christmas Eve (the deadline is Dec. 18) is Lil Joe’s in Beaver Falls. At the Frick Park Market in Point Breeze on Friday, Dec. 22, after a 2 p.m. visit by Santa, they’ll host a Smelt Party from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.  

Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at

Bob Batz Jr.

Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at