By Wendy Lemlin
“Here, try this. I’m thinking of adding it to the menu; let me know what you think,” BiCE Ristorante San Diego’s executive chef Mario Cassineri invites, as he places a beautiful dish in front of me. Before I even taste it, I know what I will think. I will love it, because I’ve never tasted anything from Chef Mario that I haven’t loved. And this creation—beet greens ravioli, the pasta tinted pink by the beet purée added to the dough, is no exception. Bathed in a sauce of horseradish and shrimp reduction with a touch of brandy, and topped with succulent pieces of prized Baja shrimp, asparagus with just the right amount of crunch, and baby spinach leaves, the dish is satisfyingly rich, yet delicate, all at the same time. It is this perfect balance of textures and flavors that, to me, has always been a hallmark of Cassineri’s cooking.
Mario Cassineri’s food is as authentic and contemporary as you would expect from someone born, raised, and trained in Milan, Italy. He attended culinary school there after discovering a love for cooking at 15, worked in a number of kitchens around Italy and beyond, and earned his first chef position at the young age of 25. “Where I come from,” he explains, “you usually train for 10 years before even touching the fire. You have to know the backgrounds of all the foods, and master all the techniques. Then, and only then, can you expect to present yourself as a chef.”
He went on to teach at the internationally renowned culinary school in Costigliole d’ Asti in Piedmont, Italy, and created a very successful restaurant and hotel consulting business with three of Italy’s most accomplished chefs.
In 2005 Cassineri became Executive Corporate Chef for the BiCE (pronounced Bee Chay) Group, and he and his chef de cuisine and partner Francesca Penoncelli opened several of the company’s restaurants internationally and in the U.S. Nine years ago the pair moved to San Diego, and today he is co-owner of BiCE San Diego, the Italian fine dining restaurant located in the Gaslamp Quarter. A few years ago, Chefs Mario and Francesca had the honor of cooking at the prestigious James Beard House in NYC, and in 2014 Cassineri and BiCE San Diego won the coveted Gold Medallion for “Best Italian Fine Dining” from the California Restaurant Association. As for Chef Francesca, among other talents, she designs the menu and creates the restaurant’s wonderful desserts, including the tortino al pistacchio that I enjoyed immensely after devouring my ravioli. Similar to a lava cake, but soooo much better, the warm pistachio cake with a molten chocolate center was garnished with an array of fruit, daubs of sauces, and a dollop of gelato. I was amazed to find that this sinfully delicious dessert was also gluten-free.
I had stopped by BiCE at the start of dinner service on a recent night. It was early, and being a Monday, the restaurant was fairly quiet, but as I chatted with Chef Mario, the bar area where we sat became lively and the dining room began to fill up. The genteel ambience and white tableclothed sophistication of the dining room stood in marked contrast to most other noisy, touristy, aimed-at-20-somethings, Gaslamp offerings. BiCE, thankfully, is a “grown up” restaurant. You can actually converse with your dining companion in a normal voice without having to shout, you can sip excellent wines, nibble on a vast array of imported cheeses and salumi from the incredible cheese bar—yes, a cheese bar!—and enjoy truly authentic contemporary Italian cuisine.
At one point in my conversation with Chefs Mario and Francesca, we were interrupted by a server who asked if Cassineri could come speak to a diner who had pronounced his meal the best he had ever had and asked if he could meet the chef. Chef Mario went to speak to the man, and when he returned, he smiled, “This is why BiCE has been a success all these years. In Italy, we create wonderful food with simple, high quality ingredients, and this is what I do here. My favorite ingredients are not complicated. Fresh herbs, the best olive oil, amazing produce, fish and meats. What matters more than what you cook is how you make it—it is the heart that cooks, the passion that drives you and permeates the food. I know I look sweet and kind,” he smiles, “but in the kitchen, I’m a very strong character. The most important thing to me is that my customers are 100% satisfied, and I will not compromise on that.”
I ask him if he misses Italy, and he thinks a minute and answers, “I miss the flavors of Italy. I am happy in San Diego, but I miss what we call ‘the air of my house’. I go home to Milan once or twice a year to check out the food trends, and to see my family. In Milan, there is everything; it is both the fashion and the financial center of Italy, and it is where it all happens.”
And if he hadn’t become a chef, what would he be doing instead? “Probably repairing cars,” he surprises me by saying. “That and maybe being a race car driver or something. I love extremes like that, racing cars, motorcycles.”
Chef Mario also loves his 5 year old cocker spaniel, Luke. “He eats everything I eat. I have a doggie cam, so I can check on him while I’m at work, but all he does is sleep all day when no one is home,” Chef laughs. “He goes to the park twice a day, and then, every night when I get home from work, we go for an hour walk.”
Cassineri has a few other irons in the proverbial fire, these days. He is the consulting chef for the newly opened Madison on Park, in University Heights. “The menu that I designed for Madison is different than what I do at BiCE. At Madison, it’s more casual, more Italian-American, a lower price point, but still high quality. It’s a winning concept.” And, coming very soon, the pizza-centric Officina Buona Forchetta in Liberty Station. This partnership between Cassineri and Matteo Cattaneo, the owner of the extremely popular Buona Forchetta pizzeria in South Park will combine the strengths of both concepts in a relaxed atmosphere that will appeal to families, among others.
All in all, good things are on the menu for Mario Cassineri.
San Diego 425 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 (619) 239-2423