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.