With Crespelle alla Genovese (Genoa-style crepes layered with pesto sauce, semi-crisp green beans, and fontina cheese), we encountered more goo. The pesto sauce is bashful in flavor. That’s not typical of Genoa, where garlic and basil are used unsparingly and delightfully. In this dish, the melted cheese conquered all.
The meat special that night was a braised lamb dish unfortunately named “stinco.” After the brief outburst of punnish hilarity that you’d expect from the posse, we rejected it in favor of the printed menu’s Brasato di Manzo con Polenta (red-wine-braised beef served over thin, crisped rounds of polenta). It was splendid. Braised beef is common enough, but it was tender and rich, and the perfect crisp polenta pancakes were truly special, one of the highlights of the meal.
Full or not, we had to try some desserts, especially the tiramisu that had already accrued many Yelper raves. Well, yes, it deserves them. It was as ethereal, balanced, and buoyant as it should be, close to my dessert ideal of sweetened air. The pistachio semifreddo (soft-frozen mousse) was merely pleasant. “Tastes like marshmallow fluff,” said the Lynnester, disappointed at the lack of a strong pistachio flavor. Espresso, delivered with dessert as specified, was also a slight letdown: good enough, but a bit too bitter and lacking crema on top. In a hotsy-totsy Italian restaurant, the espresso, at least, should be flawless.
We’d approached Bencotto with both respect and a touch of skepticism. After eating there…best Italian? Not to my tastes, or those of my tablemates. For Italian, it doesn’t hold a candle to the artesanal boldness (and fun) at Bice, which didn’t make it into the poll, or to the sheer deliciousness of the homey fare at Trattoria Antica. Bencotto has very good food and gentle pricing, but the option to choose your own pasta sauce strikes me as gimmicky. I’d rather the chef choose, having a much more intimate knowledge of each pasta than I do and a better chance of picking the most harmonious combination.
Could pick-your-sauce alone be the reason for the restaurant’s lightning-swift rise to poll-popularity, before most people had even heard of it? For its other salient feature, the freedom to nibble a little or feast on a lot — both Bice and Cucina Urbana already specialize in that and offer longer, more interesting menus for either purpose. So I can’t explain it and dare not guess about it. Maybe it comes back to that song from Gypsy: “You gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead.”
Note: Blanca has a new chef already — a hotshot from San Francisco! (Worked in some of the very top places there and was chef at the revered Campton Place, where Bradley Ogden got his NorCal start.) By the time this comes out, he should be in the kitchen at this charming restaurant. This time, guys, let’s give him a big SD foodie welcome. Maybe he’ll stick around! ■
★★★ (Very Good)
750 West Fir Street, Little Italy, 619-450-4786; lovebencotto.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $5–$19; soups and salads, $5–$13; pastas, $12–$15; entrées, $17–$19; desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Northern Italian cuisine emphasizing appetizers to share, pastas with your choice of sauce, a few carnivorous entrées. Affordable Mediterranean wines, most available by the glass; a few beers including Moretti. Corkage $15.
PICK HITS: Stuffed zucchini flowers; sautéed squid in tomato sauce; Brasato di Manzo con Polenta (wine-braised beef over crisp polenta); sausage sauce for pasta; tiramisu.
NEED TO KNOW: Upstairs dining rooms are noisy, reserve for main-floor seating. Validated parking (stop by front door before parking to pick up validation). Lacto-vegetarians will do fine, vegans can squeak by. Takeout available, especially for weekday lunches.