Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bice brings Northern Italian chic to Bethesda

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Bice executive chef Paulo Buffa eyes asparagus risotto with sautéed sea scallops (front), milk-fed veal milanese with arugula and cherry tomato salad in balsamic vinegar dressing (left) and ossobuco with safron risotto.

7501 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda


Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Style of cuisine: Northern Italian

Dinner entrées: $28-$47

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Private rooms

Special event menus

It has been 13 years since Bice (bee-chay) closed its upscale doors in downtown D.C. For lovers of Tuscan cuisine, that has been too long. Now Bice is back in town, just steps from the Bethesda Metro in the Chevy Chase Bank Building.

Named for its matriarch Beatrice Ruggeri, who opened her first restaurant in Milan in 1926, Bice has since grown to two dozen restaurants and bistros in 14 countries; four more will open this year.

Bice-Bethesda opened Feb. 18 in the former site of Old Homestead Steakhouse. Newly decorated, the classy 175-seat dining room, bar and private rooms feature a long central banquette and curved booths accenting the corners. Sweeping floral arrangements, colorful Italian glass and stills from Italian cinema add interest.

Bice’s menu is bilingual but to keep it simple (as Bice herself always advocated), I’ll stick to English.

A waiter in a white dinner jacket delivers a generous breadbasket. House-made focaccia and skizza, a tomato-infused crispy flatbread, plus airy Tuscan bread, Kalamata olive bread and a baguette mix and match with a creamy sun-dried tomato spread, spicy olive oil with fresh rosemary and red pepper, and a delicate garbanzo purée.

Skizza displays its versatility on the menu paired with four delicious toppings. My favorites are the Rustica (four Italian cheeses, mixed sautéed mushrooms and white truffle essence) and the Pescatora (sliced tomato, smoked salmon, leeks and mascarpone cheese).

Tasteworthy starters include the remarkably light baked eggplant parmigiana garnished with basil pesto and the beef carpaccio with truffle and Dijon dressing served with arugula salad in a parmesan basket. Prosciutto San Daniele finds a worthy partner in ripe cantaloupe and a balsamic vinegar reduction. Crispy flash-fried calamari and prawns are paired with zucchini and mushrooms with a spicy tomato sauce. Creamy butternut squash soup is finished with Amaretto cookie crumbs. Whole lobster on a bed of mixed greens and vegetables with shallot vinaigrette is a meal in itself.

The fresh homemade pasta special is a vibrant pesto Genovese-filled tortelloni with baby calamari ragu, garlic oil and anchovy sofrito. Asparagus risotto, topped with sautéed sea scallops, goes green with asparagus puree.

Headlining the entrees is the Mediterranean sea bass fillet (branzino), baked in parchment paper with wine, black olives and mixed vegetables. So healthy and so good. Sesame seed-crusted Ahi tuna loin, rare like the chef and I like it, served on the thinnest strands of zucchini, pepper and onion, pleases the eye and the palate. The accompanying pomegranate sauce could have been more assertive.

This is a restaurant that does ossobuco justice. The fork-tender braised veal shank rests on a bed of chewy saffron risotto, as tradition demands. A tiny fork nestles in the upright bone to extract the prized marrow. Nearby, a great-looking rib-eye steak is being consumed with relish, four sauces (Port, Barolo, grainy mustard and mushroom) and red sea salt. The perfect complement for either is a glass of Bice’s own Super Tuscan red wine from the extensive wine list. Meat-lovers take note: Bice added four grilled meats to its menu especially for this area.

Venture beyond tiramisu to other in-house made desserts like the rewarding warm classic apple tart with mango and raspberry purée, and vanilla gelato, the soufflé-like soft Italian chocolate cake with hazelnut gelato, or the intense lemon, raspberry and mango sorbetti.

Similar entrées are less expensive at lunch. Pressed for time? The Bice Express lunch menu at $14 is an attractive option. Served in the light-filled bar, weekdays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., it features seven starters and six entrees (choose one of each), a soft drink or American coffee. Add a Sicilian cannoli or strawberry sorbet for $2. Paninis served with fries and mixed greens or a burger Italian style with smoked scamorza cheese ($7 to $10) are also easy on the wallet.

Enjoy drink specials and finger food during the daily Apertivo (Happy Hour), weekdays, 5 to 7 p.m., in the bar; on selected evenings, there’s live entertainment. Round House Theatre is next door, so a chef selection pre-theater menu (two courses and dessert, $25) is a natural.

Parking is free with validation. Enter the garage from Wisconsin Avenue or Waverly Street (between Round House Theatre and the Bank building). Valet parking is $4.