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Home / Articles / Eats / Food & Drink /  Well-cooked Italian
. . . .
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Well-cooked Italian

Bencotto helps make Little Italy a worthy dining destination

By Candice Woo

Bencotto is located in the Jonathan Segal-designed "Q" building. Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.

750 West Fir St.
Little Italy

According to an Italian-speaking friend, the name of Little Italy’s newest Italian-food destination can have different meanings depending on the context. Bencotto either translates to “well-cooked,” as in a well-done steak or “well-cooked” as in, delicious. Luckily, the kitchen seems to generally practice the latter definition.  

Executive chef Fabrizio Cavallini is from the Northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna, an area that birthed four of the most delicious p-words in food language—parmesan, porcini mushrooms, prosciutto and egg-enriched pastas like tagliatelle and pappardelle. More specifically, Cavallini is from Modena, a city famous for its production of balsamic vinegar.

(If I could do without something at Bencotto, it would be the way that they dispense the balsamic onto their bread dipping plates—out of a spray bottle. Sometimes the tableside misting is so vigorous that it feels like you’re getting a vinegar facial.)

If Bencotto’s co-owners and husband-and-wife management team of Guido Nistri and Valentina Di Pietro look familiar, you may have seen them working at Pacific Beach’s Caffe Bella Italia, where Nistri was one of the opening partners in the late ’90s. Six years ago, the couple moved back to their native Milan and, most recently, Nistri and Di Pietro worked in food and fashion PR, respectively, in New York before deciding to return to San Diego. They considered locating the restaurant in Hillcrest before settling into a large, glass-walled space in the “The Q,” a new and modern mixed-use building at the north end of Little Italy.  

Though the owners care about keeping the restaurant and the menu traditional and faithful to their roots, they’re not opposed to making concessions, or adaptations, to better align with their community. Fabric panels have been installed on the ceiling to mitigate complaints about the din of the room, and requests from neighbors and nearby office workers resulted in a $5 wine happy hour at the bar or patio from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and a lunchtime panini list.

And, since a lot of people are strangely thrilled to customize their food, they offer Pasta Your Way, for which you select a type of pasta and sauce pairing. It seems like a recipe for culinary catastrophe, as there are 90 different combinations, so here are my top recommendations for the tastiest matchups: Try the Bencotto sauce, a cream-tinged tomato sauce flavored with pancetta, atop the gnocchi. Hand-cut wide strips of pappardelle stand up against a hearty meat ragu like Bolognese. And the light-flavored pesto doesn’t clash with the strong flavor of gorgonzola-stuffed dumplings. The restaurant makes all of the pasta fresh, five varieties in all, daily, in an upstairs pasta room that holds two pasta machines, including one for stretching large sheets of pasta for the lasagna Bolognese, a rich and comforting, but delicately textured, layering of noodles, meat sauce and creamy besciamella. A frequent special of hand-made squid ink tagliatelle is also good, although the shrimp in the dish have occasionally been a little bencotto (the over-cooked definition).  

Among the regional dishes from Emilia Romagna are tigella—crunchy flatbread rounds—and hollow fried puffs of dough called gnocco frito. They both make excellent vehicles for cured meats, including prosciutto di Parma, sliced paper-thin on a shiny cherry-red, hand-cranked meat slicer. I’m not into race cars, but this machine gets my engine going. Of the other starters, I like both of the soups—a purée of zucchini is bright with vibrant basil flavor, and Bencotto’s twist on classic pasta e fagioli has a velvety texture and silky ribbons of fresh pasta. From the small-plates list, the fried saffron risotto balls and the eggplant parmesan stack are ample for sharing. The dessert so popular that it’s also sold to-go is the sbrisolona, a buttery cookie-tart hybrid that’s both crumbly and crunchy—and extra amazing when dipped into melted chocolate.     

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