WITH LOCATIONS in cities from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo, Bice Ristorante is a globe-trotting concept that opened—and closed—once before in San Diego. Those with long memories (and luxury tastes) will recall downtown’s Paladion building, where a former incarnation of Bice rubbed monied elbows with the likes of Cartier, Versace and Ferragamo in the early 1990s before closing its doors. The entire Paladion eventually followed suit.
Now, Bice’s back—in a triumphant second coming that’s filling tables in the handsome dining room every night of the week. Nothing about San Diego’s new Bice says “chain,” save for its black-and-red corporate logo. This stylish newcomer at the corner of Fourth and Island is as distinctive as a Missoni print; as individual as three of the personalities driving its success.
Northern Italy’s refined cuisine is smartly interpreted by head chef Mario Cassineri, a native of Milan who blends tradition and creativity with a maestro’s ease. He’s joined in the kitchen by Francesca Penoncelli, a Piemontese pastry chef better known as the smiling woman behind the inviting cheese bar. Overseeing the staff and the striking space—which he helped design—is managing partner Rinaldo Colantoni, a veteran of San Diego’s original Bice. With support from general partner Trevor Sacco and a private investor who helped the new restaurant open late in 2009 after a year’s worth of setbacks, this talented trio is the soul of Bice.
Already, chef Cassineri has delivered two early candidates for appetizer of the year. One is a plated mosaic of parchment-thin, pink-rimmed octopus slices topped with slivered fennel, a drizzle of lemon olive oil and a sprinkle of dill ($10); the other, a marriage of Umbria’s Castelluccio lentils (known as the tiniest, tastiest and costliest on the planet), goat cheese and Chino’s beets ($9). Chino also supplies the jewel-like cherry tomatoes adorning a generous scoop of mozzarella in Bice’s take on classic caprese ($9).
Freshly made pastas dominate the primi piatti, from one night’s woodsy wild-mushroom tagliatelle ($19) to ravioli wrappers of long-simmered beef and veal ($18) or spinach, ricotta and fresh sage ($14). Lobster orzotto (risotto fashioned from barley, $18) was notably short on lobster. A splendid texture, plenty of tomato-herb brio and a sinful cloud of burrata on top saved the dish.
Crisp-skinned black cod paired with a classic Ligurian garnish of green beans, diced potatoes and pesto ($18) is well worth ordering again. So is the sautéed veal tenderloin one could slice with a spoon, accompanied by fabulous fingerling potatoes ($24). Want more of those roasted fingerlings? You can order a side, as well as other vegetable dishes like sautéed rapini or caponata, for $5.
And don’t miss what may be the menu’s best value: pork tenderloin pan-seared to a blush of pink, plated with mashed potatoes and sauced with whole pink peppercorns that burst on the palate every few bites ($18).
Pastry chef Penoncelli makes lovely desserts, including chocolate lava cake and tiramisu that sell for $8. She also bakes the fabulous herbed flatbread served to each table. But it’s as the cheese expert, presiding over an eight-seat bar displaying dozens of Italian-made formaggi, that Penoncelli has gained a devoted following.
Like a good sommelier, she’ll ask about your tastes. Then she’ll uncork a creative assemblage of tangy-sweet plin di capra goat cheese, perhaps, teamed with semi-soft Taleggio and nutty Toma from Piemonte. You’ll learn the correct order for tasting them, and discover how her hand-crafted jams—including apricot, onion and a sweet, fragrant tomato—and fresh grapes drizzled with wildflower honey enhance each selection. (Prices vary; expect to pay $7 or $8 for a three-cheese sampler.)
Colantoni gets the credit for a novella-length wine list. He used the delay in Bice’s opening to travel the length of his native Italy—“from Trentino to Sardinia,” as he puts it—meeting vintners and tasting their wares to build a bravura assemblage celebrating the best of each viticultural area. (He also designed the floor-to-ceiling, glass-walled storage area that spans one side of the dining room.) Treasures in every price range appear on this list, which details the primary grapes used in each region and offers countless choices beyond Chianti Classico and Pinot Grigio.
Close to 20 super-Tuscans alone are here, and not just the $250-plus bottles from Ornellaia and Sassicaia favored by well-heeled connoisseurs. The $38 Mazzei Serrata di Belguardo (from a winery with roots in the 1400s) is absolutely divine. So are scores of other wines for that price or less. You’ll find a sampling of California labels as well, and the full bar featuring $12 martinis has plenty of takers.
Both the bar and the open dining room—sporting dark woods, eggshell-tone walls and clean, classic lines—feature only tables, no booths, for better see-and-be-seen opportunities. Sheer white curtains and enormous, sepia-tone architectural photos provide an understated background for a dressier crowd. Think well-coiffed women shod by Louis, Jimmy and Christian, and men in neat button-downs and the occasional sport coat. Bravo!
Conversation levels can escalate, but the well-spaced tables and low music level keep decibels at an acceptable buzz. Primo tables for people-watching are along the windows; the banquette seating for twosomes means someone’s back will be to the room. For large parties, the separate Milano Room can be reserved for up to 40 diners.
Service is genial and generally capable, though occasionally inattentive. One night, entrées arrived before the antipasti had been cleared. Confusion ensued until they were returned to the kitchen. Under the astute tutelage of Signore Colantoni, however, we expect such slip-ups will be a thing of the past.
Bice Ristorante serves dinner nightly at 425 Island Avenue, downtown; 619-239-2423; bicesandiego.com.