If you love Italian or seafood and you feel like ‘pushing out the boat' for a really special occasion, Brian Salter thinks he has found the perfect place to try out…
It starts the moment you walk through the door. Buona Sera! You experience the first of your double takes as a couple of Filipina beauties greet you in well-rehearsed Italian. Buona Sera Signor / Signora! Come Stai? The greetings continue from passing waiters and from the Maître D' as you are shown to your table in Dubai 's latest - and what must be its classiest - Italian restaurant.
We are at Bice Mare , located in the Souq al Bahar, across the lagoon from the world's largest shopping centre - Dubai Mall; our table looks straight out on to the world's tallest tower - Burj Dubai; and right in front of us are playing the world's largest musical fountains. Before you even have time to sit down, you just know that this is going to be a special evening; that you're in for a treat.
Bice [pronounced ‘Bee-chay' or بيتثي ] was the pet name for Beatrice Ruggeri,” explains her grandson, Raffaele, now President and director of international operations of this multinational restaurant chain. He is over in Dubai from his HQ in Madison Avenue , New York for the opening of this latest in a string of some 50 restaurants worldwide that his Group controls. This year, despite the downturn, his U.S. operations alone have grossed some $45 million. “ Mare means ‘sea',” he continues, “and this restaurant is dedicated to serving the best Italian seafood in the world. Seventy five per cent of the dishes we serve here are seafood.”
The Bice Group is no stranger to Dubai . For the past nine years there has been a Bice restaurant in the Dubai Hilton, serving traditional Italian fare. You can also find them in Abu Dhabi , Jeddah, Doha and in a couple of months time in Bahrain , too.
“In 1926, my grandmother opened a ‘trattoria' in Milan . She was the first of 11 brothers and sisters and ended up cooking for everybody. She became an icon in Milan and 50 years later her sons Remo and Roberto – my father - started the expansion of her vision of establishing a chain of restaurants throughout the world. In 1978 a second Bice opened in Sardinia with New York a logical step for their third restaurant,” Raffaele gushes, warming to his theme, almost as fast and as voluble as the fountains now playing at full force outside.
“From the age of seven, I spent Sundays with my father and grandmother in their restaurant in Milan , and from a very early age I was taught the fine art of hospitality. I enjoyed being at the cash desk and carrying plates to the tables. For me it was a very exciting thing to do. And I grew up realising that this was what I wanted to do.”
By the time Raffaele was 16, the family had moved to Los Angeles . “My immediate family are all now in America,” he says, adding that he now lives in Miami with his wife and two children, driving the three hour journey to the office in New York, in preference to taking the plane. “My grandmother carried on working in the Milan restaurant until she was 93, when her eyes finally gave up,” he recalls, pensively. “But her influence is still everywhere in the Group, and there are three or four closely guarded recipes that have stayed with us around the world and that we maintain to this day,” he adds.
What makes a restaurant great, as opposed to just being good, I wanted to know? Raffaele was in no doubt. “What's the most important thing in a restaurant? Location, location, location. Unfortunately this is all too true. You can serve the very best food, but in a poor locality, no one will see you. This is a prestige location; an exciting location. We wanted to make no mistakes and offer the best of the very best that we could, with no room for compromise. Here with the Burj and the water fountains, we have it all! We have a location to die for. From a visual point of view in Dubai there is simply nothing to match.”
It would appear that he has a point. Despite being open for such a short time, you'll need to book two weeks in advance if you want to guarantee a table at the Bice Mare. Rafaelle would be the first to admit that it is not cheap. “There are some substantial prices on the menu so we only draw a certain clientele who have been to the best restaurants in the world and they know what good food is. It is a combination of texture, looks, smell, taste, colour, crunch; and we make sure that everybody who comes in to our restaurants gets an unforgettable experience including service, charm, politeness, food… the whole encounter is important.”
So given the undoubted success of the Bice Group, does Raffaele have any new ambitions to accomplish? “As long as I feel I can express my creativity and I am fulfilled, I am happy,” he purrs contentedly. “For the past two years I have been working on merchandising and food branding and have some new ventures about to start, including household linens, plates, glassware, dishes… as well as prepared food such as dry and fresh pasta, tomato peal and sauces. We'll only be supplying gourmet outlets,” he explains hurriedly. “Not regular supermarkets. This will not be a mass product. It has to represent the quality of our worldwide image.”
We could go on all night. Raffaele Ruggeri could talk for Italy . But eventually all good things must come to an end and with stomachs and palates well satiated, it is time to draw to a close and head for home. Buona Notte! chorus the staff still busy whisking plates around the restaurant. Arrivederci! We've enjoyed having you.
But not half as much as we've enjoyed being here.