425 Island Street, Downtown San Diego
Bice (pronounced “BEE-chay”) had been open only five weeks when I ate there, because I didn’t have the patience to wait the standard, tactful three more weeks before trying it — not just because the menu offered so many dishes I wanted to sample, but also because it’s a sophisticated international chain with a chef who has opened several other locations (including Bice Beirut). I figured they wouldn’t need much time polishing up the choreography here. Besides, if the food was a shuck, I could title the review, “Life’s a bice, then you diet.” Instead, my posse and I were charmed, delighted, excited, wishing we could come back the next night to delve deeper into the vast choice of authentic Italian artesanal cooking.
Founded as a mom ’n’ pop restaurant in Milan in 1926, Bice became a local favorite and a half-century later evidently acquired corporate backers, expanding to locations in ultra-competitive New York (1987), plus Beirut, Kansas, Dubai, Los Angeles, etc. (Downtown San Diego even had a prior incarnation back in 1990, until the Paladion Shopping Center, where the restaurant was located, went belly up.)
Even with remarkably moderate prices (here in San Diego, that is — not in NY), Bice more closely resembles chef chains (such as the international empires of Wolfgang Puck, Nobu, Jean-Georges, et al.) than suburban fill-’er-ups. Urbane Italian cuisine mingles past and future with sleek, chic decor, but the cuisine looks lovingly backward to rural foodways. It’s traditional Italian “slow food” — unfussy dishes showcasing seasonal fresh vegetables and full-flavored craftsmanly products, such as arresting local cheeses (and condiments to complement them), cured meats from specially fed pigs, hand-crafted pastas with personality, breads with character. For barely a few dollars more than at our unspeakable mall-Italians, you can enjoy some of those legendary ingredients that celeb chef Mario Batali touts and that generally can’t be found in San Diego at all.
The site is a start-from-scratch former industrial building remade as a restaurant. You enter via a lounge with low white couches for awaiting your party, set near a busy bar with dramatic lighting, which offers a serious bar menu. (Wagyu beef carpaccio, anyone?)
A few steps up, the dining room carries through the Milano-moderno neutral scheme of black, white, and grey, including charcoal carpeting (grazie!, we’re so sick of restaurant din). One wall of the dining room is dedicated to a cheese-and-salumi bar, a boon to singletons and couples eating casually but well. Choices from this bar (not the booze-bar) are also available at the tables; just ask your server for the menu. The diners mainly ran over the age of, say, 32; the men wore changed-my-shirt business casual; the women were a tad dressy, like back when “eating out” meant putting on something niftier than office clothes.
The bread plate is a class act. It includes large, delicate, golden house-made crackers, house-made focaccia, and Bread & Cie baguette slices and comes with a lush, soft mascarpone cheese blend ringed with balsamic. So we’re already on the path to glory.
Our server (from Naples) was terrific by nature, by training. Above all, Bice seems dedicated to giving pleasure. When we asked for the cheese-bar menu, he brought the booze-bar menu, too, and my eyes lit up when I spotted mozzarella en carozza (rounds of mozzarella stuffed with anchovy and fried in a light breading), a dish I loved in San Francisco but have found rarely down here. Whoops. The bar menu is bar only. But the chef not only made the dish up for us but sent it out “compliments of the house.” (It was quite firm, and I didn’t love it half as much as my favorite melty-goopy version at a neighborhood joint in Noe Valley — I felt like such an ingrate!)
But if you love mild, gooey cheeses, the cheese-bar menu is your passport to Eden. (Also true if you love weird, strong, sheepy cheeses, etc.) I reluctantly passed up mozzarella burrata (the softest and creamiest) garnished with roasted cherry peppers from Chino, in favor of buffalo mozzarella garnished with a waft of tomato confit and a sprinkling of bottarga (“poor man’s caviar”), dried and salt-cured mullet roe — at last, a chance to try one of those exotic “Mario things”! The sprinkling was so dainty I’m still not sure what bottarga tastes like, but it added an indefinable dark note to the ethereal cheese, the touch of earthiness that turned it heavenly. The buffalo cheese is also available on the regular menu with a garnish of imported prosciutto. (I think you already know that buffalo cheese comes from water-buffalo milk and bears no relationship to Buffalo chicken, where the cheese is blue.)
We leaped on the evening’s special of porchetta, also from the salumeria selection, another adventure in Mario-land: slices of herb-cured, lightly roasted, pink pork shoulder. Oh, was that a hit — so tender, sweet, and interesting!
Along with composed appetizers and bruschetta, the cheese bar also offers tastes of single Italian cheeses or plates of several — your choice, plus condiments (fruit spreads, exotic honeys) to complement them. The cured-meat selection is generous. Next time: I need that “duel” plate pitting prosciutto di Parma against its rival, prosciutto San Daniele. They have “speck,” too (separately), so if you’re into food scholarship you can add that to your comparisons and finally figure out the taste differences.
Our one regular antipasto choice was a salad of fork-tender octopus, pounded flat, serving as the bottom layer for a heap of sliced fresh fennel in a parsley-and-lemon dressing. Needed something more. I wouldn’t send it back but wouldn’t order it again, given the wealth of choices. The contorni (sides) menu offers some tremendous temptations that could stand in for starters, like a Belgian endive salad and, somewhere or other, I spotted a dish of tempura-fried cheese-stuffed squash blossom, worth trying if only to see how it rivals Cucina Urbana’s rendition. (Bice stands to become Cucina Urbana’s main competition, with a similarly flexible menu — worse location, but more genuinely Italian food.)