On the recent weekend evening I visited South Beach's Bice Ristorante, everyone from manager to busboy was in the weeds. The host lost my reservation. A waiter accelerating like a Ferrari crashed into me, yelling "Ow!" in my face as I tripped over his hurrying feet. Busboys, when we could flag them down, belatedly (if ever) filled requests for water, bread plates, and freshly ground pepper and Parmesan. In fact, the only employee not in constant motion was the bathroom attendant, who sat in her oasis of stone and tile like a bolted-down mailbox in a hurricane, and who snapped her fingers at me when I left without tipping her.
I expected much better treatment from Bice (pronounced bee-chay), a celebrated 68-year-old Milanese restaurant that has branches in Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to name just a few. Miami Bice owners Roberto Ruggeri -- who is the son of a Bice (his mother Beatrice founded the rapidly replicating restaurant) -- and Stefano Frittella and Darlyne Chauve (both of Cafe Med in Coconut Grove) opened this 200-seat Ocean Drive venture at La Voile Rouge in mid-November, replacing the defunct Mimosa. Chef Christiano Bassani, a 24-year-old Italian native who pops into the dining room every so often, is a veteran of the Chicago Bice. The place is a social scene, equipped with a hustle-bustle so intense it should have elevated my mood like a Xanax. But rude treatment and cold, outrageously salted food soured the experience, proving that the parent Bice's rep, like the copies of masterworks hanging on its walls, has lost something in its most recent translation.
The menu sports a familiar variety of Italian appetizers, including beef and tuna carpaccios, fried baby squid and zucchini, and prosciutto and melon. A starter of vitello tonnato con capperi e pagliuzze was another classic; the thick white sauce drifted like snow over scaloppine of veal loin. Served cold, the puree of tuna was accented with capers and was mild and pleasing. Unfortunately, the veal it dressed was dry and flavorless. Mixed bitter greens, piled in the center, freshened up the meat, but not nearly enough.
Timballo di melanzane alla parmigiana was a Napoleonic construction. A take on eggplant Parmesan, the purple-skin vegetable was cut in tasty, thin sheets that alternated with layers of custardy flan and mozzarella cheese. A chunky tomato sauce on top was a bit too salty, but the only real drawback was the dish's room temperature.
A bowl of zuppa di lenticchie con gamberi, lentil soup with shrimp, was an appropriate starter for the New Year, since lentils signify good luck. This lukewarm puree was a bit unusual, in that Italians usually leave these legumes whole. It was also a disappointment. Covered with a layer of olive oil so thick I felt compelled to drain it off with my spoon, the soup contained whole medium-size shrimp. but the rich lentils, which tasted a bit like black beans, disguised the shrimp's delicate flavor. In fact, the seafood seemed to have been dropped in as an afterthought.
Most of Bice's pastas are made fresh daily, as ravioli della massaia con salsa al funghi proved. Six pasta pockets split open to reveal a plethora of minced veal and spinach. The sauce, appropriately musky and rife with fresh sauteed mushrooms, eventually was a detraction, however; the light brown blanket was done in by an excess of salt.
One of my dinner mates was ecstatic about cavatelli al pomodor e basilico, which he ordered for his main course. These little homemade dumplings, consisting of ricotta cheese and flour, were supple and light, a relative to potato-and-flour gnocchi (which is also featured at Bice, in a pesto sauce). The fresh tomato sauce, fragrant with basil, was a bonus, livening up the mellow pasta.
The tangy tomato-cream sauce that coated farfalle con salmone vodka e asparagi was also delicious, suffering only a tiny bit from a too-close acquaintanceship with Morton. Were it not for the salt problem, this dish would have been perfect, the butterfly-shape noodles (one of the few not homemade) al dente, the salmon fresh and flaky, the discs of asparagus tender, and the vodka-laced sauce a vibrant cohesive agent.
Meat dishes merited more attention -- from the chef.
A New York strip steak, tagliata di manzo con radicchio e rucola, was particularly undistinguished. Served sliced over an arugula and radicchio salad, the beautiful medium-rare meat, which should have been warm in the center, was cold. Worse, it was soft and characterless, the Edith Bunker of beef. For a moment, I longed for my vegetarian days -- beans have more flavor. The lettuces were perky in themselves but dull as a complement, failing to elevate the steak to its 22-dollar price tag.
We deliberately tested the kitchen with the baked rock Cornish hen, galleto arrosto con spinaci e patate. Split into quarters, the game bird was glazed and roasted to a crisp reddish-brown. The promising skin, though, hid overly dry poultry, and the bed of limp fresh leaf spinach upon which it rested was bland and unappealing, the spinach strangely unassertive. Quartered and roasted white potatoes had a great crisp crust but were practically frosted in salt.
We deliberately tested our patience by ordering dessert. First, we had to gain our waiter's attention, which was difficult, since we couldn't discern who it was -- the same person had never served us twice. We were glad to see the waiters, who don't wear uniforms and can't be distinguished from managers, help each other out. But not even a creamy white-chocolate mousse, fashioned into three scoops, could salvage the twenty-minute wait for it. Wedged behind a chest-high table on a brocade banquette, I felt like a child stuck in an elderly aunt's parlor, endlessly anticipating her ice cream reward.
In time, diners may well be rewarded with a finely served meal at Bice; the management team's skill and experience should eventually ensure a smooth operation. Prices are not as high as the tony surroundings might seem to dictate. As for the kitchen, it would do well to cut back on the salt. Bice's Ocean Drive location is reminder enough that the Atlantic is only a few steps away.