Bice Ristorante

(San Diego, CA) — Just a short walk from our hotel in the Gaslamp district of San Diego is an Italian restaurant of note: Bice Ristorante. Having won the California Restaurant Association’s Gold Medallion Award for “Best Fine Dining Italian”, we expect great things when we make our dinner reservation for 8p on our first evening in the city. No need for a jacket; the mild temperatures make our stroll pleasurable and our appetites increase as we spy the brightly lit corner sign for Bice...

He Fed:

There is the usual throng of people clogging the entrance to the restaurant, either waiting to be seated or waiting to leave. Some of them purse their lips and glance sidelong at us, as if to say, “What are YOU doing here? This is clearly out of your...element.” Somehow, we’re able to sidle up to the hostess stand and check in to our reservation. Our table is not quite ready, could we wait in the lounge area? We find a tall two-top, order a club soda, then wait. About ten minutes later, we’re summoned and led back into the dim dining room on the upper floor.

White linen tablecloths have been starched and pressed pristinely. Glittering white plates and shining cutlery await service. Our waiter arrives, pert and attentive, with very little trace of humor; he is all efficiency and I can appreciate that. We ask to split a large bottle of Pellegrino and, after a quick scan of the wine list, decide to enjoy a bottle of Lamberti Prosecco too. The sparkling wine is very crisp, with green apple notes and a fresh, lingering tart pear finish. I’m happy to find there isn’t much sweetness.

Although the dining menu is extensive, we’re both feeling the effects of our late lunch at Stone Brewing Co and decide to keep things simple tonight. Ordinarily, we would would have partaken of the cheese bar (where people are seated, enjoying a cornucopia of formaggi) and perhaps snacked on proscuitto or other cured meats. Not tonight. It’s going to be salad and main, and that’s it.

But what a salad! Thanks to my pre-dinner research, I know exactly what I’m getting: Polipo alla Griglia Insalatina di Finocchio e Carciofi Freschi. That’s grilled octopus with baby fennel and fresh artichoke salad. It arrived, a beautiful tangle of severed tentacles, arugula, cherry tomatoes, fennel, and artichoke, drizzled in a tart vinaigrette. It’s a good salad though I’m not happy that the suckers have been shaved from the tentacles—I generally like the texture of the suckers and they tend to caramelize from the grill. Instead of tasting the grill, I get more of the lemon marinade. On top of that, the meat isn't the most tender I've had. It's a bit firmer than I like. Not quite what I’d hoped for, but still nice.

For my primi, I get the Ravioli di Coniglio e Cavolo alla Ligure, Fonduta di Porri e Riduzione di Vino Rosso...braised rabbit ravioli with kale and olives, creamy leek and thyme sauce. The scent of meat-stuffed ravioli drizzled with red wine reduction is almost too much to bear. I bite into a ravioli. It is more dense than I’m used to, but that’s the earmark of house-made pasta. I am slightly disappointed to see the rabbit has been ground up with spices and cheese; I’d hoped for larger chunks of the meat inside. No is still very good (though the meat might have been pork or duck and I might not know the difference). A glass of pinot noir would have paired perfectly, but I'm still saturated from all that beer at Stone Brewing.

Dessert is a non-starter for either of us, so we finish our waters and motion for the bill. Bice is not exactly a once-a-week eatery. The prices are a tad steep for what you get, and although the service and quality of food is exemplary, I’ve had better Italian food elsewhere. Grilling octopus and then shaving off all that delicious caramelized surface? That’s a mystery to me.

She Fed:

The entrance to Bice is impenetrable as a large party is being shown to a private dining room. In the ensuing chaos, the hostess asks us to cool our heels at one of the pub tables in the entry/bar area. Just enough time to polish off a tall club soda and our table is ready. We are led into a large, boisterous dining room, walking right by the Cheese & Salumi Bar I read about online. I can’t even pretend to not be a little bit jealous of the folks seated there. Nothing makes me happier than bellying up for a little taste of cheese and charcuterie.

I’m feeling every bit my age as I try to decipher the menu in the dim lighting. All day I’ve been thinking about a Caesar salad, despite the recent article I read stating it’s passé. Honestly, does anything beat house-made Caesar dressing? Who cares if my salad is old-fashioned? I can barely read the damn menu; I’m old-fashioned! But somehow my wrinkly little eyes spy the Vitello Tonnato, a classic Italian dish I’ve always wanted to try. It’s thinly sliced roasted veal with a caper and tuna aioli. Our waiter, Alessandro, beams when I order it, confiding, “Best dish on the menu.”

Jeremy orders us a bottle of Prosecco and we sink back into our chairs to sip, soak up some ambiance, and choose our entrees. I decide to stay with classic dishes and am debating between the eggplant Parmesan or one of the daily specials, lasagna. I’ve been infatuated with eggplant parm since I had it as part of a multi-course dinner cooked by Pete, a friend and colleague, at a dinner party hosted by he and his wife, Ellen, in their Delaware home last year. The only eggplant parm I’d enjoyed before was in an osteria in Trastevere, Rome. But Pete’s eggplant has set the bar for all others and frankly, I avoid ordering it out because I suspect I will be disappointed.

Our starters arrive and awaken me from visions of eggplant parm gone by. The vitello tonnato is elegant, with slices of deeply pink veal tenderloin arranged around a pool of the tuna mayo. A small bed of greens add contrast. I scoop up a rosy slice, daub it in the sauce, and pop it in my mouth. The veal is slightly sweet and of course, ridiculously tender. The sauce is very lightly seasoned with the tuna and caper; it’s much milder than I anticipated. The dish is absolutely delicious and I devour it heartily.

I ask Alessandro for his opinion between the eggplant and the lasagna. He enthusiastically recommends the lasagna because it’s made “with our famous Bolognese.” When I ask him for a wine reco, he suggests the Elements cab from Napa/Sonoma. Easy peasy, I order them both.

We sip our Prosecco and peek over at the cheese counter. Before we can get too interested in who’s eating what, our meals arrive. My lasagna has a rosemary twig sticking up from the middle. The aroma of the lasagna steam passing through the rosemary needles is intoxicating...worthy of closing one’s eyes and taking a deep, measured breath. The Bolognese is incredibly rich and creamy. Veal, pork, beef and heavy cream will do that to tomato sauce! The pasta sheets are firm to the tooth, perfect foil for the layers of sauce and cheese. I’m full halfway in, but can’t stop myself from finishing it off. The food, wine and service have been spot on, making for a memorable first night in San Diego’s Gaslamp District.

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