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Bice has branches in Barcelona and Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Montreal, Dubai and Delray Beach -- about two dozen restaurants in some twenty cities, with another fifteen slated to open for business by 2006. Beatrice Ruggeri (nickname: Bice) began it all by opening her eponymous trattoria in Milan in 1926; the second one, in Sardinia, didn't come about until 1978, when Beatrice's son Robert formed the Bice Group and, with brother Remo, proceeded to populate the world with a rapidly expanding chain of high-end Italian dining establishments. South Beach was one of the pins on their map, but the franchise floundered and then flopped in the mid-Nineties. Undeterred, the Group bounced Bice over to the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, where it flourished as one of Miami-Dade's premier Italian restaurants. This lofty regard took a subtle roll downward in recent years, as Bice Grand Bay coasted all too contentedly on its laurels; it closed quietly this past October. Robert's son Raffaele Ruggeri runs the newly launched Bice Ristorante, located in the oceanfront resort-hotel Le Meridien Sunny Isles Beach -- both opened concurrently two months ago.
Bice's dining room is a triangular slice of space toward the back of Le Meridien's chic lobby. Dramatic floor-to-very-very-high-ceiling windows open two of the walls to vivacious vistas of surf and sky, especially during lunch and twilight hours; once the sun sets, you have to dine alfresco on the terrace to glimpse the ocean. Earth tones inform the indoors, an elegant landscape of wheat-colored walls, ecru table linens, taupe and chocolate brown banquettes, and contrasting dark and light wood floors. Romantically dim lighting bathes the room's handsome appointments in a rich, warm glow.
Matteo Migliorini and Marcello Rivetti, veteran Bice chefs, do a capable job of cooking up fresh, well-executed Italian cuisine. Yet when a restaurant operates in twenty cities around the globe, one may presume the ownership group has developed a workable, profitable formula that runs best when unencumbered by deviation. So if dinner plates here are devoid of inspiring imported specialties or lush, seasonal produce, I imagine it's because adding an item such as fiddlehead ferns to the menu would require roughly the same amount of corporate paperwork and red tape necessary to push a bill through the Italian parliament. Either that, or this Bice simply lacks ambition to be anything more than the latest realization of a tired-and-true -- I mean tried-and-true --blueprint for success.
Take the fried calamari, a plate of lightly colored, crackly battered rings, served with a half-lemon for squeezing, marinara sauce for dipping, and a few snippets of fresh baby artichoke hearts fried and tossed into the mix -- a commendable version, but except for those few artichokes, it's no different from what you'd find at budget joints with red-and-white-checkered linens and bottles of Chianti on the tables (and at those places you might even get some fried tentacles). Caesar salad is creditable as well, the creamy dressing's allegiances equally pledged to Parmesan and anchovy. A three-tiered tower of tuna tartare comes composed of coarsely chopped, mildly seasoned fish layered with fried won ton chips. I'm never overjoyed to find won ton chips in an Italian dish, especially when they're semisoggy ones such as these. Cucumber threads and halved red grapes surrounding the tartare proved refreshing yet repetitive in their wetness.
Main courses are likewise likable. Three tender slices of veal scaloppine shine in a thin, glossy demi-glace, a few mushrooms scattered on top, and a timbale of textbook potatoes au gratin on the side. Another entrée, monkfish "guazzetto style," was described to us as being "in a clear broth," which, with accompaniments of "white asparagus and spring onions," had me envisioning a delightfully sprightly treatment. Instead nubby fillets of the fish arrived in a watery, aromatically spiced tomato-seafood liquid -- tasty enough but, again, little if no distinction from frutti di mare broths in humbler spots around town. Plus a few of the asparagus spears underneath the fish proved inedibly stalky, and one twirl of green onion seemed less vegetable than stand-in for a parsley sprig. A side order of spinach was so dull Popeye would've taken a beating instead.
There are some distinctive dishes, none more so than the pasta e fagioli. This is not the usual tomato-based vegetable soup, but a smooth, meaty, gravy-colored broth of medium consistency, drizzled with olive oil and imbued with soft wide noodles, red beans, bits of bacon, and hints of garlic. It's a rousing, robust rendition, evocative of authentic Italian home cooking; one would expect no less, given the $10-per-bowl expense. Bice's cuisine might go down easy, but the prices can be difficult to swallow: Starters average about $15; nonpasta entrées run in the $30 range. Add water, dessert, tax, and tip, and you're looking at $75 per person -- without wine.
Most pastas are less than $20 and worth every penny, particularly those with homemade noodles (dry and fresh are differentiated on the menu). Our table was especially enthralled with the pappardelle: wide, eggy, alluringly slippery sheets of pasta with creamy basil-laced red sauce and fresh mozzarella melted invisibly within -- like a deconstructed lasagna without the ricotta.
A basket of warm, fresh focaccia squares were brought to the table -- unfortunately when we were midway through our entrées, and only after we requested it. Water refills were prompt until the bottle ran out; nobody offered to replenish our glasses from another bottle or the tap. Main courses came before appetizer plates were cleared, the salt shaker was perplexingly removed along with the appetizer plates, and our side order of spinach arrived shortly after the focaccia -- and never would have made it at all had the manager, Bernardo Nolfo, not observantly noted its absence from our table. Mr. Nolfo works the room with admirable aplomb, and his servers also carry a professional and amiable spirit; on the other hand, they dropped the ball more times than the Bad News Bears.
Crema Catalana was infused with a subtly soothing dose of anise, but the caramelized sugar cap was as thick as a coaster made of quartz. Tiramisu was creamier and fresher than many versions, and a chocolate "soufflé cake" was the same old reliable dome of dark chocolate with melted interior. Bravo for offering a cheese plate, but a Bronx cheer for the mundane nature of the selections: Gorgonzola, Taleggio, Parmesan, and goat.
Well, shouldn't be surprised: These are admittedly popular, accessible cheeses, and Bice is all about pleasing the public in as unchallenging a manner as possible. If only the final bill was as unchallenging as the service and cuisine. I, for one, would have been much more pleased.