Italian food doesn’t always have to ring bells of spaghetti or lasagna; it’s much more complex than parmesan cheese, pesto and fettuccine. It’s fresh and seasonal produce, cheeses, meats, and pasta at BiCE Ristorante, it all comes with these ingredients and a side of passion and elegance.
Chef Mario Cassineri is the lead linesmen at the Gaslamp establishment on the corner of 4th and Island that serves true Italian food. He’s learned the recipes from scratch while traveling and working up and down “The Boot” early in his culinary career. “You’re not going to find chicken parmigiana on my menu,” states the Milan native. The pasta is made in-house every day along with the sauces, stocks, and produce. Aside from traveling to Milan yourself, you’re most likely not going to get better Italian fare here in San Diego. And to prove that, BiCE has a gold medal from the California Restaurant Association for “Best Fine Dining Italian” here in America’s Finest City.
While the San Diego location has only been open for three years, the vast network of BiCE restaurants spanning the globe began in 1926 in Milan. Beatrice Ruggeri, or Bice to her family and friends, was known for her ability to make people feel at home with her food. For years she was encouraged to open her “cucina” to the public. She was hesitant but agreed to open a local “Trattoria” (a friendly gathering place). With Bice in the kitchen and her family in the dining room “il Ristorante Da Gino e BiCE” or BiCE as it would later be known, had a family feeling and appeal. There are locations across the globe including Beirut, Lebanon, Johannesburg, South Africa, Tokyo, Mexico City and six different locations in the United States.
While walking in the smoked glass doors roughly around 6 o’clock, my eyes are instantly cast from side to side with all the patrons enjoying happy hour in the primary bar area of BiCE. Surrounding my guest and I are tables full of laughing people, wines, beers, and plates full of food at this early evening hot spot. But before I can peer over the shoulders of the guests and look at what they are imbibing, we’re quickly greeted by our hostess Alena who rushes off to grab Maître Di Filippo Reitano. He scoops up two menus and gives me and my guest a little tour of the restaurant and its three separate dining experiences. Off to the right of the entrance is a large private dining room that seats just over 50 people and has the ability to show audio and video presentations. It’s a cool idea for businesses wanting to have a large meeting, or families to even have a birthday or a graduation party with embarrassing photos of yourself in the bathtub when you were a little kid.
The bar area is the second place guests can dine. The lobby is mixed with the bar; about 10 seats cradle the plank with two medium-sized tables to the right before the entrance to the private dining area. As we scale the stairs to make our way to the dining room, to the right of us is the famous Cheese Bar, which is singular to the San Diego BiCE. I feel like I’m watching a tennis match while studying the cheese rounds, wedges, and crumbles lining this 8-seat bar. I go back and forth mentally “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” over the massive selection. Seriously, I get giddy when it comes to cheese, and they aren’t serving Velveeta here; BiCE has 35 Italian imports and rotates them on a frequent basis. There are fresh and aged cheeses made from water buffalo, sheep, cow, and goat’s milk. The colors range from blues to oranges and milky white mozzarellas. If you have any affinity for cheese, you’ll be paired with a multitude of flavors to enjoy. So I’m anxious to get to my table and try some formaggio.
The tour continues to the wine cellar. A glass wall that’s large enough to show a movie on keeps the restaurant goers from ravaging these corked bottles, but allows you to see just how extensive its wine hoard is. BiCE has a full bar but I’d say its specialty drinks are its grapes—all of 19 pages of the menu. Filippo informs us that there are well over 150 different labels within the walls of this vino vault and if I had to guess, quite a few hundred bottles on hand. The bulk of the bottles are of Italian ilk, California vines are well represented and a few French options are peppered on the menu, too. I’m impressed, and I haven’t even sat down to eat yet. So as the Black Eyed Peas say “Tonight’s going to be a good night.”
Overall the restaurant is very clean in its architecture. Guests are not going to get a red and white checkered table cloth and dusty Chianti candles as their centerpiece. The warm, dark brown woods contrast the white-cream walls and table cloths in the dining room, bar, and private room. Almost floor to ceiling windows allows patrons to see and been seen at this prime location Downtown. Large photos of Italian buildings and museums adorn the walls, which creates a visual flow around the room. The lights are long, thin silver cylinders falling from the ceiling that keeps the tables lit while allowing the common area to be slightly dimmer and romantic. The tables are simply set with bone-white plates, thin glass stemware and well-weighted silverware informs diners they will be using them extensively. Everything feels elegant yet comfortable and casual, a sentiment I’d eventually get from the food as well.
After the tour, my guest and I take our seats and peruse the menu to see what’s in store: fresh caught seafood, meats and pasta specials are created daily with whatever Chef Cassineri can get his hands on. Some of the seasonal and current items are the Pan Seared Pork Tenderloin with Puttanesca Sauce, Homemade Oven Baked Lasagna and Potato Gnocchi with King Crab Meat. The appetizers on the menu also consist of familiar and fun takes on traditional Italian foods and preparations like the Ahi Tuna, Salmon and Sea Bass Tartar, Buratta Caprese or the Homemade Duck Prosciutto, Fois Gras and Frisee Salad.
Our server Paolo introduces himself, (by the end of the meal, I would consider him a showman instead of hired help) and he speaks fast and cracks jokes even faster. When we have any questions about the menu or the wine, he answers them quickly with his thick Italian accent. He knows where dishes hail from around the country and what wines to drink with each course. After the formalities, he takes each of our napkins and drapes them over our laps for us. I’ve never had a server do that for me, but then again I don’t think I’ve ever had a waiter like Paolo take care of me before. Undecided on what to get on the menu because of its very encompassing culinary cornucopia, we take the easy way out and just tell our server to have Chef Cassineri surprise us with his favorites. Before that starts, we proceed to the cheese.
Either at the end or beginning of their meal, diners need (and I can’t stress this enough) to experience the cheese bar and all it has to offer. Ester (the very knowledgeable cheese-tender if you will) starts us off with four cheeses, fig bread, and a trio of accompaniments: honey, apple marmalade, and awesome black olives (pit in, so beware). While your taste buds might differ from mine, the two cheeses I highly recommend that come to our table are the Testun al Borolo and the Boschetto al Tartufo. The first is a cow and sheep’s milk, crumbly and creamy, (oh, and soaked in Borolo wine) with grapes still studded in the cheese. The latter is a soft cow/sheep’s milk creation with black truffles that goes great with the apple marmalade and fig bread, adding sweetness to the tart, creamy flavor. Paolo thinks we could use a different assortment of bread for our cheese plate so out comes the basket.
I’ve never seen a buffet (of bread) like this. Cubes of focaccia, Italian bread, and fennel and curry crackers paired with a whip of ricotta and mascarpone in a small pool of olive oil and balsamic lands on our table. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds. With the nuttiness of the olive oil drizzled on the focaccia and the smooth, creamy and sweet cheese spread, I could have just ate these all night and been happy. These are some tasty pre-meal munchies. Between my guest and me, everything except the soaked grapes were gone from the dark marble stone slab the cheese came on. Now with a relatively blank culinary canvas, we are excited for our first taste of the menu.
Our first dish is a Grilled Octopus and Baby Fennel Salad that is fresh and full of flavor. Arugula, artichokes, cherry tomatoes, micro greens and a fresh pesto swipe on the plate accompany the steamed and then seared octopus and bright licorice-like veggies. Spicy, sweet, bright, and light are the words in the forefront of my mind while eating this cleanly presented plate. We are welcomed to find out that along with the food, Filippo has paired a nice pinot grigio with the salad (and all of our courses).
Out comes a bowl of Mushroom Polenta with Fontina cheese. This dish is very traditional and a comfortable combination, hailing from northern Italy according to Paolo. A healthy amount of seasonal shiitake, oyster, and cremini mushrooms in a super smooth polenta with a delicate and nutty cheese melted across helps round the dish out. I’m a big fan of mushrooms, although my friend isn’t as much, but this combo is so good, both of us practically lick the bowl clean.
The Orzotto with Maine Lobster meanders from the kitchen to our table next. This comes in a small crock pot and when uncovered, we attack without hesitation. A fresh ball of burratta cheese (an outer shell of mozzarella, inside a mix of cream and mozzarella) sits atop cherry tomatoes, lobster, and soft barley similar in texture to a risotto. The Orzotto is paired with a deep red wine, Barbera from Piedmonte, that’s not dry, but fruity and slightly sweet and a perfect complement to each buttery bite of the lobster, cherry tomatoes, and barley. I finish my small pot off fast, like, you’ve got five brothers and sisters and you definitely want seconds, fast.
With a smirk across his face, Paolo knows something that my guest and I don’t. “I can’t wait for you try the next one, you’re gonna like the name,” he rattles off quickly in his Italian accent. The Strozzapreti (or literal translation of “strangle the priest” according to the giggling Paolo) comes in a bowl with more porcini, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms. And well, the dish is enjoyable verbally and gastronomically. These fresh wild mushrooms are in season and especially good right now (as we’ve seen in our previous dishes) and our fresh house made pasta dish comes out expressing that.
The previous courses were very seasonal, but here comes the meat of the meal, a Stuffed Veal Medallion filled with truffle cheese and pesto bread crumbs, which rests on a bed of wild mushrooms and potato mash. The focal point is the veal with the rosemary, thyme, and green onion stems sticking out the top. There is a light pink hue to the meat that lets me know it’s not overdone and tender, which goes well with the cabernet swirling around in the Reidel. The spud mash and fungi are complemented by the truffle and breadcrumb mix that does a stellar job at filling the last amount of space in my stomach. But you can’t have a meal at a restaurant, especially one as nice as this, without trying out what’s on the dessert menu, so I stand, jump up and down to make some room.
For the sweet tooth in us, we get the Warm Pistachio and Chocolate Lava Cake and the Golden Chocolate Cake. The lava cake is soft yet has a slight crunch. I break through the crust with one spoonful, opening the flood gates in which holds the pistachio and chocolate sauce in. My guest and I look like piggies at the trough because of how quickly we finish. I do manage to make a dent in the chocolate cake along with the fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries freckled on the plate.
I’m stuffed, happy, and it’s almost 10 o’ clock; I’m ready to slip into this self-induced food coma. The meal Chef Cassineri made for us isn’t anything short of superb, and the service that Paolo, Ester, Filippo and Alena provided mimicked the kitchen perfectly. For its cheese, wine, food and atmosphere, BiCE Ristorante is the all-encompassing Italian fine dining experience here in San Diego.
INSIDER TIP: The happy hour at BiCE is great because of the stellar deals on cheese, drinks, and appetizers. It’s from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and around that time, there are still a few available street spaces to park in if you’re lucky and early enough.