425 Island Street, 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.)
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.