BiCE Ristorante | Old World Italian in the Gaslamp

June 24, 2011

With locations that span the globe from Dubai to Buenos Aires, BiCE (pronounced "Bee-chay") Ristorante has come a long way since Beatrice "Bice" Ruggeri opened the original in Milan, Italy in 1926. The San Diego restaurant stays true to form with a steadfast hold on classic Northern Italian dishes and traditional Italian culinary values, such as using fresh and simple ingredients and enhancing them with wine, cheese and other highly flavored items.

The epic collection of wines by the glass and bottle, seamless service, a lengthy menu of cheeses, antipasto, house-made pastas, both traditional and contemporary entrees and an opulent interior design make it no surprise that Bice is such a successful global brand.

Located in the Gaslamp Quarter at the corner of 4th Ave. and Island Ave., this is Bice's second effort in downtown San Diego. The first time around, it opened on the top floor of the Paladion (originally a mall of luxury shops, now an office building) in the early 1990s, but failed to attract a sufficient clientele to remain in business. Bice returned to San Diego in October, 2009 and features an upscale, sophisticated design that embraces modern minimalism and obviously is inspired by Milanese architecture, as evidenced by the prints on the walls.

Conversations often make the mood boisterous, giving Bice an energy that is enhanced by the flowing layout. There are several seating options. Squeeze in at the cheese bar to get a complimentary education on formaggio and salumi. Sit at the bar or a lounge table to enjoy the daily happy hour and a game, or reserve a table in the dining room, an impressive space that features an enormous, glass-enclosed wine closet that displays an equally remarkable collection of bottles.

In addition to wine, cheese contributes much to Bice's success. Customers are urged to order cheese plates composed of three, five or seven selections ($16 to $21), and such garnishes as honey, marmalade, jams and Italian olives compliments them wonderfully. Both the cheese and dinner menus describe offerings in Italian and English, and change approximately every month. Meals open with a sampling of breads, which are served with a delightful mascarpone spread instead of butter.

Among the antipasto options, the carpaccio di tonno e panzanella ($17) is a colorful, clean-flavored dish of thinly sliced ahi tuna decorated with yellow tomatoes, red onion, cucumber and a salad of micro basil topped with drops of saba, a sweet, well-reduced grape must that is similar to balsamic vinegar. It's very nice, as is sampling several cheeses, especially when paired with domestic and Italian honeys ($2.50) and a trio of meaty Italian olives ($3). The caprino cremosa al tartufo was particularly tasty, a creamy and rich goat cheese with hints of black truffle.

The Ossobuco
You can have a large meal if you like, including one of the primi piatti, or first courses, that typically precede entrees at stylish Italian dinners. A nice choice: risotto agli asparagi e capesante, or al dente rice sauced with asparagus stems and tips and one creamy Mano del Leon scallop ($23; these shellfish translate as "Lion's Paw" and are harvested along the coast of Baja California and points South). Offered as a side dish, pillowy potato gnocchi with Asiago cheese are dressed with enjoyably subtle pesto ($8).

Among entrees, Bice turns out a very fine Chilean sea bass alla ligure, a pan seared filet served with potatoes and French-style string beans, a drizzle of pesto and a savory celery root sauce ($29). The pistachio-encrusted New Zealand pistachio double lamb chop arrives with a black fig sauce and scalloped potatoes ($32), but may be cooked rather too rare.

Desserts do not seem Bice's strong suit. Both the tiramasu and crème brulee were equally flavorless, although each made a desperate attempt to replicate the familiar flavors of these traditional Italian favorites.

A bit on the pricey side, Bice appeals to those seeking a sophisticated and traditional Italian meal and an extensive wine selection. It's not for those looking for casual, Americanized Italian cuisine.

425 Island Avenue, Downtown

Daily 5 p.m. to Close

Happy Hour Daily 5-7p.m.

Bice Ristorante on Urbanspoon