Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick


750 W. Fir Street, Little Italy

Too much, too soon? Bencotto, a new Northern Italian restaurant in Little Italy, launched sometime this winter (the earliest Yelp raves I’ve spotted were posted in early February). The management didn’t tell me about the opening right away: not until April did I receive the grand-opening press packet, dated December 1, 2009, a slick-paper booklet illustrated with many color photos — clearly this was no struggling new mom ’n’ pop.

Meanwhile, mere weeks after Bencotto’s opening, balloting opened for San Diego Magazine’s best restaurants poll, with a deadline of March 25. This being a slick periodical, I’d be gobsmacked if copy deadline were any later than April 8 for the June issue, which I received by mail around May 8. And there were the 2010 poll results. Bencotto came in first as “Best Italian” and second as “Best New Restaurant” in the reader poll and first in both categories in the magazine’s food critic’s rating. This was before the place had accrued any substantial local ink, as far as I know.

These wins awakened my curiosity. It usually takes San Diegans a long time to warm up to new restaurants, unless (like Cucina Urbana) they instantly fill a perceived need and have a certain glam factor. (Most poll-winners have been around for at least a decade, and those in the ethnic-food categories in this magazine have often been suburban chains — just a few years ago, Olive Garden won “Best Italian.”) So my friend the Lynnester and I exchanged raised eyebrows about the possibly premature accolades and decided to visit Bencotto and assess it straight up, on its merits, like any other restaurant; Mark and Gail joined us.

The decor is minimalist-chic with rugless floors, golden-oak tabletops on black iron frames, and handsomely shaped unpadded black chairs, which during a long, convivial Italian meal eventually feel like those hard wooden chairs from kindergarten. (After dinner, while Mark went for the car, I stood outside shaking off my inner-child’s situational ADD — and reviving my circulation — by dancing the Twist.)

We began with the “to share” salumi plate of cured meats, the “ultimate selection” (per the menu), putatively including speck, sopressata, capicolla, bresaola, mortadella, and salame. But if you order the small size ($14, versus $19), you only get three meats. Ours had speck, mortadella, and the white one — capicolla? but isn’t that usually a dark pink? — rather than smaller portions of all of them. The salumi aren’t made in-house, in any case; they’re okay, but no revelation. With either size, you have a choice of interesting breads: either gnocco fritto, lightly fried, puffed pasta dough, or tigella, a flat, round house-made loaf. The gnocco were unique — crisp and bubbly, new to all of us.

Crema di Zucchine e Basilico (creamed zucchini-basil soup) was rewarding once it cooled down enough to taste without blistering your lips. It’s very green and comforting. Mark, especially, loved the underlying basil flavor. There was no actual cream apparent, just the thickness of puréed zucchini and (probably) potato.

Fiori di Zucca, lightly fried squash blossoms filled with smoked mozzarella in a creamy thin Parmesan sauce, were sensual treats with melting, gooey centers, contrasting with the lightly crisped, battered exteriors. (They could go head-to-head with Cucina Urbana’s version.) We also rejoiced in Calamari in Umido, tender small sautéed squid, mostly rings, in a substantial white wine–tomato sauce. “I really like squid but not in the usual fried version,” said Mark. Amen to that! “This sauce is tasty, and the squid are so tender. Is that because they’re very fresh?” “No,” I answered, “it’s because they’re properly cooked — ben cotto, you could say. With squid, you can cook them lightly, quickly, on high heat, or slowly for a long time. Anything else, they turn to rubber, fresh or not.” These tasted slow-braised.

The central feature of the menu is pasta — the soft ones made in-house, the hard ones artesanal, presumably from Italy and not Ronzoni. You can choose your own sauce from a list of eight options. Doesn’t this sound like Lotsa Pasta in Pacific Beach, which also offers house-made pasta and your choice of sauce? (As I recall, it won “Best Italian” several times in the poll.) Here, happily, the pasta dough is rolled thinner, at least from what I tasted.

Most of the sauces are on the heavy side, either with meat (the bolognese, Bencotto, and salsiccia) or cream with cheese. There’s also an arrabbiata — “inflamed” — for a highly spiced tomato-sauce variation, and a salmon cream sauce with no listed cheese. Our big hit was cheese-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli, for which I chose the salsiccia sauce — Italian sausage in a spicy tomato sauce. Not very spicy, neither sauce nor sausage, but tasty, hearty, and rewarding. The ravioli skins were substantial — not thick, but not fragile. Yet I kept wondering whether this was the right sauce for the ravioli, which were a bit overwhelmed by it.

A unique house dish, Gnocchi Ripieni di Gorgonzola (potato dumplings stuffed with rich cheese), seemed a good opportunity to try the signature Bencotto sauce, a “pink and spicy pancetta sauce.” Neither dumplings nor sauce thrilled us. The soft, pillowy gnocchi were extremely gooey, like ultra-creamy but glutinous mashed potatoes, even before the Gorgonzola stuffing. The Bencotto tomato sauce, with a light, ground-meat texture, tasted oddly ordinary. Should we have ordered the sausage sauce for that, and the Bencotto for the ravioli? The pesto sauce might have worked nicely, but we had already ordered another dish with it. Other options included a Gorgonzola and walnut cream, the classic choice for unstuffed gnocchi but redundant if there’s already Gorgonzola in the fritters; nothing else seemed an exact fit. What’s missing from the list is a light, fresh pomodoro (tomato) sauce; in springtime, fresh cherry tomatoes could fill in for plum tomatoes. And a simple aglio e olio, butter-and-garlic sauce, and/or a light cream sauce with a few sage leaves wouldn’t be amiss. Does everything have to be so fancy?

With Crespelle alla Genovese (Genoa-style crepes layered with pesto sauce, semi-crisp green beans, and fontina cheese), we encountered more goo. The pesto sauce is bashful in flavor. That’s not typical of Genoa, where garlic and basil are used unsparingly and delightfully. In this dish, the melted cheese conquered all.

The meat special that night was a braised lamb dish unfortunately named “stinco.” After the brief outburst of punnish hilarity that you’d expect from the posse, we rejected it in favor of the printed menu’s Brasato di Manzo con Polenta (red-wine-braised beef served over thin, crisped rounds of polenta). It was splendid. Braised beef is common enough, but it was tender and rich, and the perfect crisp polenta pancakes were truly special, one of the highlights of the meal.

Full or not, we had to try some desserts, especially the tiramisu that had already accrued many Yelper raves. Well, yes, it deserves them. It was as ethereal, balanced, and buoyant as it should be, close to my dessert ideal of sweetened air. The pistachio semifreddo (soft-frozen mousse) was merely pleasant. “Tastes like marshmallow fluff,” said the Lynnester, disappointed at the lack of a strong pistachio flavor. Espresso, delivered with dessert as specified, was also a slight letdown: good enough, but a bit too bitter and lacking crema on top. In a hotsy-totsy Italian restaurant, the espresso, at least, should be flawless.

We’d approached Bencotto with both respect and a touch of skepticism. After eating there…best Italian? Not to my tastes, or those of my tablemates. For Italian, it doesn’t hold a candle to the artesanal boldness (and fun) at Bice, which didn’t make it into the poll, or to the sheer deliciousness of the homey fare at Trattoria Antica. Bencotto has very good food and gentle pricing, but the option to choose your own pasta sauce strikes me as gimmicky. I’d rather the chef choose, having a much more intimate knowledge of each pasta than I do and a better chance of picking the most harmonious combination.

Could pick-your-sauce alone be the reason for the restaurant’s lightning-swift rise to poll-popularity, before most people had even heard of it? For its other salient feature, the freedom to nibble a little or feast on a lot — both Bice and Cucina Urbana already specialize in that and offer longer, more interesting menus for either purpose. So I can’t explain it and dare not guess about it. Maybe it comes back to that song from Gypsy: “You gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead.”

Note: Blanca has a new chef already — a hotshot from San Francisco! (Worked in some of the very top places there and was chef at the revered Campton Place, where Bradley Ogden got his NorCal start.) By the time this comes out, he should be in the kitchen at this charming restaurant. This time, guys, let’s give him a big SD foodie welcome. Maybe he’ll stick around! ■

★★★ (Very Good)
750 West Fir Street, Little Italy, 619-450-4786; lovebencotto.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $5–$19; soups and salads, $5–$13; pastas, $12–$15; entrées, $17–$19; desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Northern Italian cuisine emphasizing appetizers to share, pastas with your choice of sauce, a few carnivorous entrées. Affordable Mediterranean wines, most available by the glass; a few beers including Moretti. Corkage $15.
PICK HITS: Stuffed zucchini flowers; sautéed squid in tomato sauce; Brasato di Manzo con Polenta (wine-braised beef over crisp polenta); sausage sauce for pasta; tiramisu.
NEED TO KNOW: Upstairs dining rooms are noisy, reserve for main-floor seating. Validated parking (stop by front door before parking to pick up validation). Lacto-vegetarians will do fine, vegans can squeak by. Takeout available, especially for weekday lunches.

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Your comment about cooking squid is very right-on. That's one reason I recommend that people who dine in Baja stay away from squid, I have yet to taste it properly cooked here.

I can't get the smirk off my face on this one. Dead-on. I have been waiting for someone to step up about the SD Mag poll! Thanks for mentioning what many have been thinking.

Fried squid would work, actually - quick and hot! In Mexico, they cook it for too long on high heat, makes it difficult to get through. The only way I've had squid here that works is in Caldo de Siete Mares because they have no choice but to cook it long and slow (unless they screw up the soup by letting it boil for a long time, which I've also had). If I ever get a chance to try fried squid, I'm all over it. That sandwich sounds great.

Back in the early '80's, maybe '82-83 somewhere in there, a friend of mine had just gotten his pilots license. A couple times a week, after we went surfing,3 or 4 of us would head out to Gillespie field, rent a plane and go flying.

I take it you were renting a small plane like a Cesna.

I told my story about skydiving out of a small Cesna plane in the early 80's, and how I had never been in such a little plane, and how terrified I was-and I mean terrified to the boner.......Will never get me back into a small plane again.

That's why I cancelled SD Magazine. All gloss and no substance.

I live close by and been there several times with family, date, clients and co-workers: real tasty, simple Italian food cooked by Italians who are daring to do something different with Italian food. I agree: brasato is exceptional,and tiramisu is beyond perfection. Fresh pasta is addictive, and....FRESH. what's wrong with choosing pasta and sauce? Sauces are so basic and simple. They just give you the chance to try new dishes every time you go there. So what? I only do not understand the bitterness of this review, quite unnecessary --considering the importance of food -- and somewhat annoying.

I completely agree with the previous post. I love this place. the idea of choosing your own sauce is great. the sauces are so traditional/simple and versatile (hardly "fancy"!) that there is no problem with matching these kinds of pasta to the sauce. this is certainly a better idea than adding aglio and olio to the menu! who on earth would order that in a restaurant?! i have been here many times now and i love the place, it's comfortable (it is rugless, the review says--what restaurant has rugs?) and friendly. i too find this review strangely snide and the repeated mention of Cucina Urbana is gratuitous. who knows--but it doesn't really matter, I'm just so glad Bencotto is in town!

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