Bice’s management has no problem at all with people eating family-style, like Italians, and that means that even if our foursome had shared just one pasta and one entrée after our antipasti, there’d be no hateful little “split plate” charge. But of course I needed to try as much as possible, so we got two of each and (given the early-morning commutes of several tablemates) opted to have pastas and entrées served at the same time, rather than pastas first, proteins second.
The evening’s special of soft, fresh-made fettuccini with a medley of six mushrooms (none of them precious) was simple but fun. But what captured me entirely was a riveting house-made “calamarata” pasta (thick, hollow, striated shells, shaped like short calamari tubes) with fresh clams in their own shells and squash blossoms sauced with garlic, olive oil, a touch of hot pepper, dry white wine, and the juices exuded by the clams. It’s one of those Ratatouille-type revelations, a simple peasant dish rising to the fore — fierce with its in-your-face flavors.
Our first entrée choice was black cod, cooked just right to tender, coated with a light pesto and a touch of celery-root purée. It came with a mixture of string beans and diced sautéed potatoes, but the main thing was that this fine, rich fish was shown the respect it deserves in the perfectly timed cooking.
It was the relative “bargain” price that tempted me on the most expensive entrée, beef tenderloin filet ($28, compared to most local restaurants’ high-$30s for this cut) — that and the garnish of foie gras. There was not all that much foie gras, just a bit of frou-frou on top. The beef was rare as ordered, and the Barolo wine-reduction sauce was pleasing. The problem is, beef tenderloin is tender but not very flavorful compared to, say, rib-eye or skirt steak. The mashed potatoes alongside tasted buttery but not creamy. The horizontally split roasted head of garlic proved delicious, but what do you spread it on if you’ve already used up the nightly carb-count on breads and pastas?
We went and consumed more carbs, after all, but they were “worth-it carbs” on exceptional desserts. Pastry chef Francesca Penoncalli rivals our local Jack Fisher (currently at 910 Restaurant) in the trembling tenderness of her panna cotta, a rendition fancied up rewardingly with balsamic reduction sauce, almonds, and fresh basil. (Panna cotta is a sort of gelatinized cream, with any flavoring desired. Done right, it’s probably the airiest, most delicate dessert ever invented.) We also enjoyed her special ricotta tart — lean, clean, not too sweet. My espresso, served hot and fresh with dessert as requested, was rich, balanced — perfect.
My fear for Bice is this: Chef Mario Cassineri and sous-chef Francesca Penoncelli have been traveling together for five years, opening new Bice locations around the world. That is, they’re the “opening chefs,” with the expertise to get new restaurants off the ground. Then they leave them to other chefs they’ve presumably trained. Will Bice still be this good in three or six months or a year, after this duo has wafted off to Abu Dhabi?
“I want to come back for another meal to taste some more pastas,” said Lynne. “And then come back again for a whole night exploring the cheese-and-salumi bar.” “I’m with you,” said Sam. “I want to try the entire menu at the regular bar,” said Jerry. “I want to eat it all,” I said.
Our food bill (including the most expensive entrée on the menu) came to $35 each, for an experience that was all pleasure. Watch out, Cucina Urbana, with your noise and crowds — a new Italian stallion has just galloped into town, with saddlebags packed with the precious homeland goodies we’ve long heard about and are yearning to taste.
425 Island Street, downtown, 619-239-2423, bicesandiego.com
HOURS: Open daily, 5:00–10:00 p.m., until 11:00 weekends.
PRICES: Three-course prix fixe including matched wines, numerous choices, $40, until 6:30 p.m. nightly. (After 6:30, whole table must order prix fixe.) Antipasti, $8–$16, cheese-and-salumi bar, $3–$23; pastas, $10–$18; entrées, $16–$28; sides, $5; desserts, $8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Authentic Italian food with Milanese slant, including a cheese-and-salumi bar with artisan products (items available at tables); fine local produce, house-made pastas, house-baked and local breads. Mainly Italian wine list, wide price range; Italian beers including Moretti. Full bar. Corkage $20.
PICK HITS: Buffalo mozzarella with bottarga (cheese bar) or with prosciutto; burrata mozzarella with Chino Farms peppers (cheese bar); porchetta (special, cheese bar); house-made “calamarata” pasta with clams; filet of black cod with pesto and celery-root sauce; panna cotta with almonds and balsamic syrup.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking $15. Reservations a must, near-full house most nights. Cheese/salumi bar and regular bar are first-come, first-served. Dining room a short flight up; hidden wheelchair elevator, ask at hostess station. Mostly business-casual dress or a touch snazzier. Loads for lacto-vegetarians. Will be open (earlier hours) Christmas and New Year’s Day; longer hours New Year’s Eve.