Epicurious Eating: Bice Ristorante
With love from Milan
Published Thursday, 26-Nov-2009 in issue 1144
“Luxurious” isn’t a word that food critics typically apply to their Gaslamp dining experiences. Top local picks by Fodor’s or Zagat are not found on these streets. And the restaurants that do receive accolades from local press are usually venerated for their spare-no-expense interior designs rather than for culinary ingenuity and reliable service.
Breaking the mold is Bice (pronounced bee-chay), an Italian kitchen rooted in early 20th-Century Milan that nudges most other podium-fronted restaurants of this crowded universe into further mediocrity.
Bice gives us the “was” and “now” of Italian cooking with meals that taste firmly traditional and modernly sophisticated at the same time. An exquisitely arranged cheese bar along one side of the spacious dining room supplies many of the dishes with imported pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buttery Toma and other coveted curds stamped with Protected Designation of Origin from their Italian regions. They arise with intoxicating effect on salads, pastas and various side plates.
The bar also shows off marinated olives, savory homemade jams and proscuitto di Parma still on the leg bone. Behind it is an antiquated cold-metal slicer from Italy that prevents the prized ham from tearing apart — all telling clues that quality isn’t compromised for the scores of Gaslamp crawlers who are easily sated by spaghetti and meatballs drowned in industrial red sauce. Bice doesn’t go there.
The restaurant’s name and concept dates back to 1926, when Beatrice Ruggeri (known as Bice) endeared customers at her Milan trattoria with homespun cooking and motherly hospitality. Her repertoire included osso bucco, the now globally popular braised veal shank that reportedly originated from Ruggeri’s stove. It remains a signature offering on most nights.
Kept alive by devoted investors, Bice made its American debut in 1987 in New York City before opening here a few years later in downtown’s Paladion complex. The economic recession at the time forced its closure, but the company continued growing around the world. Bice’s recent San Diego comeback brings the total number of restaurants to about 30.
At the helm of the kitchen is a young Mario Cassineri from Milan, who opened Bice in Beirut after attending cooking school in Italy. He has been given ample latitude to create a menu specific to San Diego. Judging from everything we ate, I would bet a Maserati that he’ll launch into celebrity status.
From the antipasti section, save the caprese for the multitude of other restaurants that serve it and head straight to the soft polenta with cheese fondue. The creation involves a base of steaming polenta in a wide, shallow dish covered with at least four cheeses heated to silky consistency. Wild mushrooms cooked in wine and herbs deftly enhance the scheme. Cassineri uses different cheeses in the dish every night – end pieces from the slabs and wheels that don’t aesthetically qualify for Francesca’s cheese plates. It’s a terrific top-quality appetizer priced at only $8.
Other knockout starters include a lemon-dressed salad of fresh fava beans with pears, fennel and strongly stated pecorino. A glass of dry, citrusy sauvignon blanc correlated to the salad’s herbaceous elements while playing best friend to the cheese. Veal carpaccio transcends the norm with minced celery, shaved truffles and thin slices of brawny Parmesan that made everything pop.
Among several red meat and seafood entrees, there are 15 pasta selections that include the most luscious homemade pappardelle to ever hit my palate. Thin, but with a fragile chew, the wide ribbon noodles were coated judiciously in pink tomato sauce thickened with mozzarella and a stronger granular cheese, perhaps Parmesan reggiano. This is Cassineri’s answer to “red” Alfredo sauce.
No less outstanding was labor-intensive potato gnocchi, which oozed warm little puddles of asiago cheese when split in half. They’re covered in pesto that tasted less garlicky and immensely more basil-forward than standard versions.
We passed up Bice’s acclaimed osso bucco for a lighter main course of Mediterranean sea bass cooked flawlessly on a cedar plank. Cassineri compliments the tailed fillets with warm grape tomatoes and a veneer of herb-truffle emulsion. Alongside was a veggie fix of caponata, a Sicilian recipe of eggplant, tomatoes and olives cooked in sugar and vinegar. Everything jived.
Our side dishes were wonderfully prepared as well. A lineup of fresh asparagus was striped with butter-soaked grated Parmesan, while our multi-colored roasted potatoes received a tableside misting of truffle oil that a waiter sprayed on them from a snazzy glass bottle.
Service at Bice is formal and pampering, which matches the elegant atmosphere replete with tall sheer curtains, white tablecloths and a sleek wine vault housing more than 400 labels (two-thirds of them Italian). By the end of our meal, my faith in the Gaslamp dining scene was brightly restored.