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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.

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David Dodd June 9, 2010 @ 12:27 p.m.

Your comment about cooking squid is very right-on. That's one reason I recommend that people who dine in Baja stay away from squid, I have yet to taste it properly cooked here.


nicoleleigh9 June 9, 2010 @ 3:10 p.m.

I can't get the smirk off my face on this one. Dead-on. I have been waiting for someone to step up about the SD Mag poll! Thanks for mentioning what many have been thinking.


David Dodd June 9, 2010 @ 3:23 p.m.

Fried squid would work, actually - quick and hot! In Mexico, they cook it for too long on high heat, makes it difficult to get through. The only way I've had squid here that works is in Caldo de Siete Mares because they have no choice but to cook it long and slow (unless they screw up the soup by letting it boil for a long time, which I've also had). If I ever get a chance to try fried squid, I'm all over it. That sandwich sounds great.


SurfPuppy619 June 9, 2010 @ 4:04 p.m.

Back in the early '80's, maybe '82-83 somewhere in there, a friend of mine had just gotten his pilots license. A couple times a week, after we went surfing,3 or 4 of us would head out to Gillespie field, rent a plane and go flying.

I take it you were renting a small plane like a Cesna.

I told my story about skydiving out of a small Cesna plane in the early 80's, and how I had never been in such a little plane, and how terrified I was-and I mean terrified to the boner.......Will never get me back into a small plane again.


phil28 June 11, 2010 @ 12:56 p.m.

That's why I cancelled SD Magazine. All gloss and no substance.


djordan1968 June 13, 2010 @ 8:44 p.m.

I live close by and been there several times with family, date, clients and co-workers: real tasty, simple Italian food cooked by Italians who are daring to do something different with Italian food. I agree: brasato is exceptional,and tiramisu is beyond perfection. Fresh pasta is addictive, and....FRESH. what's wrong with choosing pasta and sauce? Sauces are so basic and simple. They just give you the chance to try new dishes every time you go there. So what? I only do not understand the bitterness of this review, quite unnecessary --considering the importance of food -- and somewhat annoying.


tanja June 15, 2010 @ 11:56 a.m.

I completely agree with the previous post. I love this place. the idea of choosing your own sauce is great. the sauces are so traditional/simple and versatile (hardly "fancy"!) that there is no problem with matching these kinds of pasta to the sauce. this is certainly a better idea than adding aglio and olio to the menu! who on earth would order that in a restaurant?! i have been here many times now and i love the place, it's comfortable (it is rugless, the review says--what restaurant has rugs?) and friendly. i too find this review strangely snide and the repeated mention of Cucina Urbana is gratuitous. who knows--but it doesn't really matter, I'm just so glad Bencotto is in town!


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