What do Palm Beach, Abu Dhabi, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Singapore, Mexico City, Dubai, Houston, Amsterdam, and Jeddah have in common?
They're cities where, when you're feeling lonely, lost, far from home, and hungry, you can hie yourself over to a certain megachain and know exactly what's on the menu. We're not talking MacDonald's. I'm referring to the linen-draped tables at Bice Ristorante.
Bice, which celebrated its 80th birthday in March, was opened as a small trattoria in Milan by a lady named Beatrice Ruggeri ("Bice" for short) in 1926. Her descendants spent the rest of the century turning Bice into a worldwide empire of expensive, snooty Italian eateries. There are 25 Bice Ristorantes now, with several more opening this year, and the family-owned company has also sprouted a new limb of more casual bistros called Bice Grand Café.
Lucky devils, we have so many Bices in our immediate vicinity that it's tough to decide in which locale we want to slurp our minestrone Delray Beach? Sunny Isles? Palm Beach? Sobe?
As celeb chefs all over New York are discovering, it's mighty lucrative to turn your solo operation into a "brand" and watch it multiply, along with your bank account. The Ruggeris, God bless 'em, learned this secret long before Lagasse, Batali, and Trotter caught wind of the good news. Unfortunately, as fans have learned, every time a celeb restaurateur opens a new gig, whatever was unique and excellent about the original gets dumbed down. The master chef can no longer be in 15 places at once; costs can be cut significantly by eliminating flourishes; and, finally, the place has no more to recommend it than the famous name above the door.
There are indications that Bice has met a similar fate. The food at the Delray Beach restaurant was reportedly so badly botched when it opened that even my mild-mannered colleagues at the Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post were sharpening their critical talons (the Post gave it a D, the worst grade I've ever seen that paper award a restaurant). The original Bice's famous warmth too has dimmed, smoldered, and finally expired. Beatrice Ruggeri was known for her hospitality "the first customers said it was like being at the home of a friend," we learn from the website; the trattoria had a "family feeling." At Bice Palm Beach, three generations later, this family has by all accounts grown severely dysfunctional. The Worth Avenue location has an almost gleeful reputation for the snottiness of the headwaiters, who, at least during season, serve some very, very famous people. (The night Bill Clinton dined there with James Carville and Bill McBride, he was loudly propositioned by a drunken doll, who offered to "do a Monica" on him.)
I dragged my parents over to Bice last week, stubbornly hoping to relive a little bit of the "magic" of Palm Beach. We lived in the north end of this golden isle long ago, and as we walked through the pretty arcade off Worth Avenue and under the magnificent arches of bougainvillaea, we reminisced about how much fun Palm Beach used to be, even for schlubs like us who had hardly any money. There were clubs like the Brique Balloon, where Copeland Davis played piano, and late nights when O'Hara's stayed open until 5 a.m. There were still a few decent restaurants, like Petite Marmite, and some reasonably priced dives, like Maurice's. And a whole bunch of youngish people, although quite a few of them ended up dead or in jail or quite literally on the lam.
Forty years later, Worth Avenue in June is nowheresville. And Bice at 7 p.m. on a Monday was somnolent to the point of insensibility. Actually, the room was about three-quarters full: quiet families with youngish kids, a scattering of middle-aged couples, a handful of old folks. The men were in shirtsleeves, the ladies in slacks. You got the feeling most of them just didn't feel like cooking and had said to themselves, Oh hell, let's go get dinner at Bice. The space is attractive if nondescript, done up in beiges, with a whole wall of windows facing the via and a bar with a flat-screen off the foyer.
By the time I emerged from the decidedly stinking ladies' room, our headwaiter, Humberto, had already copped an attitude. We ordered three Bice martinis at $10 each. They were rosy-hued, cold, and delicious, made with fruit steeped in vodka and a splash of cranberry. And we asked to have our liquor and wine put on a separate check. Humberto looked for a minute like he'd gone into anaphylactic shock, uttered nary a word, and stalked away.
I like to play with nasty waiters, so when Humberto came back, I brightly asked him a million questions. Was the menu the same in summer as in winter? (Yes, nearly). How long had the place been open? (Since 1992). How do you pronounce casonsei di Bergamo? This last question is relevant, since the menu is written in Italian. All the waiters here, including those born and raised on the Yucatan Peninsula, lard their speech with frequent pregos and buon appetitos, a last vestige of what 80 years ago was authentically Milanese. Luckily, it's a small, rather drab menu, so I didn't need a serious language course.
Antipasti: pizzette, calamari, seafood salad, bresaola, prosciutto with melon, or carpaccio ($17). We opted for carpaccio. And I ordered the crudita di vegetali della Bice ($13), a pretty way of saying "chopped salad." I have a theory that you can tell everything you need to know about a restaurant by its salads and bread; they're a measure of how much attention the chef pays to details (not that he's likely to put his hand to either, but he should have his eye keenly focused on the slaves who do). To follow, we asked for a plate of casonsei di Bergamo (sausage-stuffed dumplings, $26) split three ways, because Bice is known for its fresh pasta. And main courses of the pesce del giorno Livornese ($30; it was snapper); the house specialty, costoletta di vitello alla Milanese (breaded veal chop, $39); and one of the night's specials, gamberoni with mango-arugula salsa (grilled shrimp, $18).
I'm going to cut to the chase. There are only two reasons to spend your money at Bice Palm Beach. One is to celeb-watch during the social season, preferably over lunch. The other is to eat the pasta. Because nothing else we ordered that night came remotely close to the quality of these delicious morsels of casonsei, generous boat-shaped ravioli stuffed with ground sausage, spinach, and potato, drenched in brown butter, and studded with Italian bacon. The waiters came around with ground pepper and grated parmesan and made it even more splendid, if a bit too salty. If a split portion was anything to judge by, a full plate of the stuff is quite enough to make a thoroughly good meal with a glass of wine. Homemade parpardelle; ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and ricotta with sage and poppy seed sauce; tagliolini Bolognese; and gnocchi al pesto organico are also made in-house, all $21 to $24.
The basil, by the way, is the only organic item on the menu hilariously referred to in two places, as if growing basil organically were the most difficult task a chef could set himself. I wished Bice had taken the same trouble over the expensive vegetables in my chopped salad. That salad could have used an extra splash of olive oil. Carrots, fennel, cucumber, tomato, a hat of thinly sliced purple onions that were far too pungent to be served raw, and a few croutons. Still, it was big enough to feed four.
Dad's carpaccio was better; thinly sliced cold beef with excellent parmesan and lots of arugula. But it didn't stand out above the carpaccio served in hundreds of Italian restaurants between here and Sobe, and it was a good sight more expensive.
Our entrées were pretty much a bust. The fish of the day tasted rather like the fish of the week. This snapper was not fresh, and somebody had tried to hide that sad fact by dumping a bucketful of plain tomato sauce all over it, dotted with a few black olives. It was one of the laziest iterations of "Livornese" sauce I've ever seen. "Never order fish on Monday," my mother said, pushing her $30 plate of mush away (when the bill came, the price had risen to $32). My shrimp although there were only three of them were great by contrast, plump, moist, and nicely charred, and they tasted fine with the tart-sweet-peppery chopped mango and arugula salsa. That was $6 per shrimp, but at least I could eat without fear. My Dad's parmesan-crusted and pounded veal chop was dry and flavorless, served with cold chopped tomatoes and more of the ubiquitous green. Arugula, arugula everywhere, and not a bite to eat!
I held out little hope for dessert. Deep dish crème brûlée ($9) was slightly too sweet and very creamy, and there was a lot of it. Its texture didn't come close to the crema we'd had at Frankie's Pier 5 lately. The tiramisu ($10) was the gustatory equivalent of one we'd bought from Costco recently and thawed from a box, which is to say, not bad at all.
It was 9 p.m., and the place had cleared out. Spooky! And this beeyotch had had enough of Bice. But next time I'm in Dubai, I'll be sure to check out that squash-stuffed ravioli.
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