750 W. Fir Street, Little Italy
Too much, too soon? Bencotto, a new Northern Italian restaurant in Little Italy, launched sometime this winter (the earliest Yelp raves I’ve spotted were posted in early February). The management didn’t tell me about the opening right away: not until April did I receive the grand-opening press packet, dated December 1, 2009, a slick-paper booklet illustrated with many color photos — clearly this was no struggling new mom ’n’ pop.
Meanwhile, mere weeks after Bencotto’s opening, balloting opened for San Diego Magazine’s best restaurants poll, with a deadline of March 25. This being a slick periodical, I’d be gobsmacked if copy deadline were any later than April 8 for the June issue, which I received by mail around May 8. And there were the 2010 poll results. Bencotto came in first as “Best Italian” and second as “Best New Restaurant” in the reader poll and first in both categories in the magazine’s food critic’s rating. This was before the place had accrued any substantial local ink, as far as I know.
These wins awakened my curiosity. It usually takes San Diegans a long time to warm up to new restaurants, unless (like Cucina Urbana) they instantly fill a perceived need and have a certain glam factor. (Most poll-winners have been around for at least a decade, and those in the ethnic-food categories in this magazine have often been suburban chains — just a few years ago, Olive Garden won “Best Italian.”) So my friend the Lynnester and I exchanged raised eyebrows about the possibly premature accolades and decided to visit Bencotto and assess it straight up, on its merits, like any other restaurant; Mark and Gail joined us.
The decor is minimalist-chic with rugless floors, golden-oak tabletops on black iron frames, and handsomely shaped unpadded black chairs, which during a long, convivial Italian meal eventually feel like those hard wooden chairs from kindergarten. (After dinner, while Mark went for the car, I stood outside shaking off my inner-child’s situational ADD — and reviving my circulation — by dancing the Twist.)
We began with the “to share” salumi plate of cured meats, the “ultimate selection” (per the menu), putatively including speck, sopressata, capicolla, bresaola, mortadella, and salame. But if you order the small size ($14, versus $19), you only get three meats. Ours had speck, mortadella, and the white one — capicolla? but isn’t that usually a dark pink? — rather than smaller portions of all of them. The salumi aren’t made in-house, in any case; they’re okay, but no revelation. With either size, you have a choice of interesting breads: either gnocco fritto, lightly fried, puffed pasta dough, or tigella, a flat, round house-made loaf. The gnocco were unique — crisp and bubbly, new to all of us.
Crema di Zucchine e Basilico (creamed zucchini-basil soup) was rewarding once it cooled down enough to taste without blistering your lips. It’s very green and comforting. Mark, especially, loved the underlying basil flavor. There was no actual cream apparent, just the thickness of puréed zucchini and (probably) potato.
Fiori di Zucca, lightly fried squash blossoms filled with smoked mozzarella in a creamy thin Parmesan sauce, were sensual treats with melting, gooey centers, contrasting with the lightly crisped, battered exteriors. (They could go head-to-head with Cucina Urbana’s version.) We also rejoiced in Calamari in Umido, tender small sautéed squid, mostly rings, in a substantial white wine–tomato sauce. “I really like squid but not in the usual fried version,” said Mark. Amen to that! “This sauce is tasty, and the squid are so tender. Is that because they’re very fresh?” “No,” I answered, “it’s because they’re properly cooked — ben cotto, you could say. With squid, you can cook them lightly, quickly, on high heat, or slowly for a long time. Anything else, they turn to rubber, fresh or not.” These tasted slow-braised.
The central feature of the menu is pasta — the soft ones made in-house, the hard ones artesanal, presumably from Italy and not Ronzoni. You can choose your own sauce from a list of eight options. Doesn’t this sound like Lotsa Pasta in Pacific Beach, which also offers house-made pasta and your choice of sauce? (As I recall, it won “Best Italian” several times in the poll.) Here, happily, the pasta dough is rolled thinner, at least from what I tasted.
Most of the sauces are on the heavy side, either with meat (the bolognese, Bencotto, and salsiccia) or cream with cheese. There’s also an arrabbiata — “inflamed” — for a highly spiced tomato-sauce variation, and a salmon cream sauce with no listed cheese. Our big hit was cheese-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli, for which I chose the salsiccia sauce — Italian sausage in a spicy tomato sauce. Not very spicy, neither sauce nor sausage, but tasty, hearty, and rewarding. The ravioli skins were substantial — not thick, but not fragile. Yet I kept wondering whether this was the right sauce for the ravioli, which were a bit overwhelmed by it.
A unique house dish, Gnocchi Ripieni di Gorgonzola (potato dumplings stuffed with rich cheese), seemed a good opportunity to try the signature Bencotto sauce, a “pink and spicy pancetta sauce.” Neither dumplings nor sauce thrilled us. The soft, pillowy gnocchi were extremely gooey, like ultra-creamy but glutinous mashed potatoes, even before the Gorgonzola stuffing. The Bencotto tomato sauce, with a light, ground-meat texture, tasted oddly ordinary. Should we have ordered the sausage sauce for that, and the Bencotto for the ravioli? The pesto sauce might have worked nicely, but we had already ordered another dish with it. Other options included a Gorgonzola and walnut cream, the classic choice for unstuffed gnocchi but redundant if there’s already Gorgonzola in the fritters; nothing else seemed an exact fit. What’s missing from the list is a light, fresh pomodoro (tomato) sauce; in springtime, fresh cherry tomatoes could fill in for plum tomatoes. And a simple aglio e olio, butter-and-garlic sauce, and/or a light cream sauce with a few sage leaves wouldn’t be amiss. Does everything have to be so fancy?