Walking up the stairs to the Portofino Bay Hotel's newest restaurant, Bice (pronounced "BEE-chay"), you feel like you've wandered onto a movie set. It's a familiar feeling to most Orlandoans, who often have no choice but to enter a theme park in order to enjoy an upscale restaurant. The hotel purports to be a re-creation of the Italian beach town of Portofino; the sprawling wings enclose a man-made lake upon which gondolas and water taxis float aimlessly. The cobblestone piazza seems genuine enough, but the vintage Vespas with engines removed, chained to lampposts, and the monotonous stucco walls betray the fact that it's a fake. The cruising golf carts don't help the illusion, either.
Once you're inside, though, the illusion's over. Bice, offering very expensive, very refined comfort food, is just another generic upscale hotel restaurant. It's very nice muted ivory-toned lighting, frescoed ceiling, enormous flower arrangement but bland. The one note of personality is the sharp black-and-white lacquered armchairs in the bar; too bad, the bar was populated by cheering football watchers on this night.
Once we attracted the attention of the waitress, we ordered a glass of 2000 Luigi Righetti ($16) while we waited for our table. The only amarone available by the glass, it was delicious but took no risks. Then the dance of the servicepeople commenced: A host told us our table was ready, a waiter led us there, a different waiter arrived to hand us menus and somewhere, the cocktail waitress was still holding our bar tab and credit card. Once that was sorted out, we made our selections from the huge menu some of the choices oddly betraying a nouvelle cuisine twist and settled back on the comfy banquette.
Before our starters arrived, a busboy brought a basket of bread and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and dinner was off to an inauspicious beginning. The salty rosemary focaccia and rustic wheat bread were obviously mass-produced, possessed of a uniform crumb instead of the chewy density characteristic of bread baked in small batches. The olive oil was pale and weak, and the vinegar was sour. A glum anticipation settled over the table.
Beef carpaccio with black truffle dressing and an arugula and mushroom salad ($18) arrived looking like a rosy-petaled sunflower. Sadly, the beautiful pink beef, instead of being silky and earthy, was mushy and tasteless. The salad (arugula, raw cremini mushrooms, shaved Parmesan) was bright, clean, simple, but the taste of black truffle could scarcely be detected in the dressing. Across the table, the lentil soup "with black truffle fondue" was also simple yet expertly prepared, a delicate, peppery puree with, alas, nary a trace of the pungent black truffle in the swirl of olive oil on top.
Then chef Massimo Esposito knocked one out of the park. Resembling something a very chic caveman would eat, a huge 16-ounce veal chop ($42) arrived, lapped in porcini sauce and snuggled atop a drift of soft polenta. Surrounded by lovely charred fat (hey, don't knock it until you've tried it), the chop was grilled to a perfect medium-rare, as ordered. The polenta, rich with Parmesan, was the kind of dish that inspires compulsive eating creamy and utterly comforting. The rigatoni alla Siciliana ($17) was less spectacular, though enjoyable. The traditional Sicilian marriage of eggplant, pine nuts, capers and raisins somehow didn't quite work this time around.
Though not a dessert fan, I splurged on the pistachio and caramel semifreddo ($8) and urged my companion to try the vanilla panna cotta (also $8). This was the best move we made all night. The semifreddo was a bustling playground of tastes and textures: soft, half-frozen cream crunchy with glassy shards of caramel and slivers of roasted almonds, in a pool of almond crème anglaise sprinkled with jade-green chopped pistachios. By contrast, the panna cotta was an elegant, austere dish: a vanilla custard gelatin dusted with black vanilla seeds and ringed with a compote of sweet dried apricots. It was pared down to the essentials, yet clearly created by a virtuoso. With two plates my resistance to dessert was ended.
Like the staircase we had to climb, our experience at Bice may have started on a low note, but it ended with a fabulous high. My suggestion: Grab a table on the patio, have a glass (or bottle) of wine, sample the desserts and watch the faux gondolas navigate the faux lake. At least the food will be the real thing.