The Empire Strikes Back

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bice is nearly 30 years old, yet the restaurant feels as fresh and vibrant as a newcomer. but bice is an international empire of more than 50 northern italian restaurants, started in 1926 by a milanese matriarch by the name of beatrice ruggeri, nicknamed bice. the restaurants are everywhere from dubai to montecarlo to miami. the new york edition is the flagship american restaurant.

thanks to the assiduous efforts of the ubiquitous master designer adam tihany, bice now feels as european as most any restaurant in new york city. i half-expected to see a woman with a bowl of tip money stationed outside the gent's.

a certain dignified air suffuses the dining room without preventing it from being very comfortable indeed. white beams and rafters are semi-conjoined at the center of the ivory ceiling. brass sconces offer gentle, indirect light. elegantly clothed tables are set about with curvaceous low walnut chairs. everything runs at an admirable pace, under the watchful ministrations of bice's amicable general manager, douglas alexander.

the dearly beloved classic northern italian dishes are second nature to executive chef jose liriano, whose first culinary job was, in fact, as a line cook in bice's kitchen back in 1996. during the interceding decade-and-a-half, liriano initiated the kitchens in several bices around the world, refining his own techniques to make himself the perfect fit for bice new york, which continues to attract a steady stream of regulars and not a few celebrities, thanks to its classically prepared favorites. it doesn't take marcella hazan to tell you that when it comes to most of these dishes, you don't want any big surprises.

an ample caesar salad is handsomely adorned with an anchovy-inflected dressing, and scattered with crisp caraway-pumpernickel bread cubes. it's also not too cold, which can be the downfall of a caesar salad.

a warm asparagus gratin is spring itself. the delicate light green spears are buttered and given a delicate covering of parmigiano-reggiano.

crab cakes are soft and soothing, sided by a smoky chipotle tartar sauce that manages to bring out even more of the lightly saline crabby flavor.

conspicuously fresh pappardelle "al telefono" bears that moniker because when you pull a forkful of pappardelle from the plate, the clinging melted mozzarella strings out and forms a "telephone cord" that extends from the plate to your mouth. the pasta's tomato cream sauce is deeply comforting. douglas told us that all the pasta is made fresh every day, starting at 6 a.m.

tagliolini is wound through with chunks of lobster, sliced shiitake mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, all sauced in a luscious lobster-shell reduction.

for veal chop milanese, a frenched 10-inch-rib-bone-on chop is pounded to one-eighth-inch thickness, lightly breaded and sautéed. it is plated with the traditional chopped fresh tomatoes on the side, rather than engulfing the chop-a welcome departure. the veal itself was unusually flavorful and, of course, tender.

seared duck breast is given a good rummy orange glaze, sliced and plated with rough-and-tumble mashed potatoes and an al dente chiffonade of zucchini, carrots and yellow squash.

baked alaska isn't a dessert you often encounter in an italian restaurant, but bice's rendition is so good it warrants a return visit. it has a layered richness that features dark chocolate cake and a welcome scoop of hazelnut ice cream.

a light but rich banana mousse is accompanied by a heap of caramelized bananas.

puff pastry profiteroles flaunt their ironic light fluffiness. they're filled with a tender pastry cream and doused with a bittersweet chocolate sauce.

blessed with a terrific chef, a wonderful location and splendid service, it's easy to see why bice has enjoyed 30 years of great popularity. may another 30 years be in store for this destination restaurant.



7 e. 54th st.

between madison and fifth avenues


entrées: $28 to $44">

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