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Bice in Pasadena's Paseo Colorado Is the Latest in a Chain That Started in Milan

September 15, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

When I heard the famous Milan restaurant Bice was opening a branch in Pasadena's new Paseo Colorado, my first thought was, "Why?" Bice had opened a high-profile Beverly Hills restaurant in 1989, which managed to hang on, just, for almost five years before closing. They want to try again? Even in Milan, Bice is beloved more for its elegant, old-fashioned ambience and solicitous waiters than for its rather staid food. The historic restaurant not far from the Duomo is also a Milan fashionista haunt, which helps. Bice started in 1926 and now is in more than two dozen cities around the world.

In opening the Pasadena Bice, unlike at their Beverly Hills locale, the Bice Group didn't go in for the grandiose. Tucked away in Paseo Colorado, across from Border Grill, this one is a relatively modest affair joined at the hip with Cafe Med, another Bice Group-owned restaurant. After you find Bice in the maze of the Paseo, the bartender or maitre d' may well ask, "Which restaurant?" when you mention a reservation.

Mexico City-based restaurant designer Yolanda Bagatella has done a terrific job of conjuring a chic northern Italian ambience from a standard boxy storefront. The floor is striped in wide bands of dark and light hardwood; a small bar at the front welcomes guests; and banquettes lit with oversized white silk lampshades give Bice a more urbane look than its suburban setting would suggest. If they could only fill the room. If only Paseo Colorado could feel less like, well, a shopping mall.

Nevertheless, everyone who walks in the door gets a big welcome from maitre d' Ben-Hur Ranieri, a Bice veteran. Raffaele Ruggeri, that slender handsome Italian walking the room, looks as if he stepped out of the pages of Italian Vogue. He's director of West Coast expansion and a third-generation family member. At Bice Pasadena, you get a real waiter, not an actor, though they could try to act more helpful and interested. As it is, most seem more like union waiters without a shred of interest in the restaurant or the business. Ask a question, it may not get answered. Ask for tap water, you may get a bottle of Italian aqua gassata--bubbly water.

The menu under chef Julian Baker, who comes from Bice's European operation, adds some California-influenced dishes to the Milan restaurant's classic northern Italian fare. Salads are generally good bets, nicely presented and green enough to appeal to California tastes. One that's particularly successful is the chopped salad of endive, radicchio and frisee in a subtle roasted garlic dressing.

Soups are generally good, too. Asparagus soup one night is creamy and studded with nuggets of lobster.

But the beef carpaccio, made with lean rosy beef, is doused with so much truffle oil, it's virtually ruined. Much better is the marinated swordfish carpaccio garnished with diced melon and ribbons of mint, an inspired combination. Salmon carpaccio tastes watery, but all it needs is a squeeze of lemon to bring it, and the accompanying fennel salad, back to life. On the sliced meat front, bresaola is less pungent than the usual air-dried beef, which may not be to everyone's taste. The artichoke salad on top is bizarre, and has more Parmesan than artichokes, so it's like eating straight cheese.

Dainty appetizers such as the thumb-sized rolls of raw tuna (that's the California touch) stuffed with a fluffy crab salad show off this kitchen's garnishing skills. But if you're thinking about ordering risotto as a first course, don't. The portions are definitely American-sized, meant more as main courses than starters, and in the Milanese style, heavy on the cheese. That said, both the traditional risotto streaked with saffron and another of shrimp with zucchini and zucchini flowers are well-crafted.

Pastas, for the most part, are mundane. Green ravioli stuffed with potato and leek delivers, but pappardelle with mozzarella would feel fresher if the chef hadn't dosed the tomato sauce with so much cream. My guest who ordered fettuccine with lobster passes me his plate when he can't find a single bite of lobster. It's there, cut very fine and in minute quantities, but he's still disappointed.

I would go a long way for a proper cotoletta alla Milanese, but Bice's breaded veal cutlet falls short in flavor: It's the quality of the veal. Aside from a pleasant veal entrecote with a medley of vegetables, the kitchen seems to be stronger with fish. Halibut comes proudly to the table cooked in parchment paper, perfumed with black olive tapenade. And a light "bouillabaisse" sauce with clams and mussels is a fine foil for poached salmon.

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