>> Thursday, July 21, 2011

Date of Dining: 4/17/2011
Price: ~$35 for entree and appetizer
Location: 750 W Fir St, San Diego, CA 92101

The Quick Bit:
+ fresh handmade pasta
+ reasonable prices
+ friendly service
Δ The acoustic ambiance of the space could be toned down
Δ Some dishes could have more variation in sauces

Disclaimer: I went to Bencotto with people that knew the owner and his wife, but it was not communicated to the kitchen that I was a blogger.

Looking at the menu of Bencotto, one is bound to be worried that the food that comes out of the kitchen might just be food from The Olive Garden; the chief worry being the "build your own pasta" portion that dominates the entrees. However, if one were to be put off by the "build your own pasta" menu, they would potentially miss a truly wonderful opportunity to experience authentic Italian food in the heart of the Little Italy district of San Diego.
Bencotto's concept is like Occam's Razor; the food should just be totally simple, taste authentic, and leave the diner happy. The focus and selling point of Bencotto are two things: for the appetizers there is a selection of salumis and prosciuttos delivered from red meat slicers at the bar, and for the entree their pastas are all handmade fresh to order. 
Heading the kitchen of Bencotto is Executive Chef Fabrizio Cavallini. Chef Cavallini grew up in Emilia Romagna and hails from a family of chefs. He graduated from Hospitality Institute in Modena and worked as the Head Chef of Europa 93,Osteria Artidoro, and Beccofino in Milan. At Osteria Artidoro, Chef Cavallini met Guido Nistri, General Manager and Owner of Bencotto. Along with his wife Valentina, Nistri manages both the front of house and kitchen of Bencotto. He can often be seen making the rounds in the restaurant making sure everyone is having a good time.

Salumi with Gnocco Fritto
The salumi were cut from the red wheel slicers and paired with the gnoccho fritto. From left to right we were served mortadella, sopressata, salame calabrese, and prosciutto di parma. All of the salumi were made in house, and it was apparent in the taste that the salumi maker knew what they were doing. Personally I enjoyed the salame calabrese the most as I didn't really like the flavor of the chili in the sopressata. Some reviews from the 4-letter gushed over the gnoccho fritto, but I found it bland and boring; it appeared to just be some basic pastry that was deep fried so it would puff up and lacked seasoning and flavor in the dough mixture. Despite the miss of the gnoccho fritto, the meats stood on their own and delivered a great start to the meal.
Calimari in Umido
Most Italian restaurants that serve calamari serve some sort of throw away calamari fritti that relies on the flavor of the deep fried oils to cover the natural flavor of the calamari. When I saw that Bencotto served a proper sauteed version of the calamari, I knew I had to try it.
On the presentation, I was put off by the lone floating piece of bread in the bowl. Alone, it was not enough to supplement the entire appetizer, and I don't think it improved the plating. Despite the looks, the calamari were only slightly overcooked, but were definitely fresh. The broth had a nice element of spice that elevated the dish. 
As I dined at Bencotto with some regulars, they knew that we could order tripe from the kitchen even though it wasn't on the regular menu. Tripe is one of those ingredients that is very difficult because it has to be boiled long enough to become soft to chew, but not so long that it becomes overcooked and loses its chewiness. The window to hit for this "temperature" is relatively narrow. The tripe served at Bencotto was superb, which was especially surprising since they probably didn't expect to sell any of it during service that night.
Once again, I was put off by the additional piece of bread garnish added to the appetizer, but that was quickly forgotten as I enjoyed the chewiness of the tripe contrasted with the sharpness of the cheese and the delicate spice in the sauce. This sauce was much thicker than the calamari sauce, so it was much easier to sop up with the bread. 

Tagliatelle al Nero di Seppia
Chef Cavallini considers this dish his signature dish of 2011. The tagliatelle is mixed with squid ink and served in a spicy pink sauce containing prawns. Furthermore, the portion of prawns is a generous helping. For being his signature dish, I thought this dish really delivered on the promise. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, and the shrimp were fresh, flavorful, and not (extremely) overcooked.
If there was a knock on this dish it's that there were essentially two types of shrimp in the dish. First there are the larger prawns that are readily seen in the photo, and then there were some smaller shrimp that were mixed in with the pasta. While I was extremely happy for the generous portion of shrimp, it did seem somewhat confusing that there were two different types of shrimp (so different flavors) in the dish, and that the smaller ones were slightly overcooked as a result (since they were smaller). However, this was only a minor blip and I otherwise enjoyed the dish immensely.
Cioppino Bencotto
The Cioppino was served in the same sauce that the earlier squid had, so it was somewhat disappointing. However, the extra seafood in this stock added some additional depth to the broth, so it wasn't a total loss. The salmon was slightly overcooked, but the other seafood was cooked well.
This wasn't a particularly strong dish, but it wasn't extremely weak either. In the end, we were too full for dessert so we called for mercy.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Bencotto. I was hoping to have gone back for the "pasta your way" before posting this review (hence the delay), but I never made it back. However, I was told by many others that the pasta is hand made, cooked fresh to order, and was as high in quality as the squid ink pasta I enjoyed.

The food at Bencotto was fresh, authentic, and very tasty. The hand-made pastas and balances sauces really set it apart from some other Italian restaurants in San Diego. On the strength of my experience at Bencotto, I award it the bit award.


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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
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