A lot of San Diego restaurants serve good Italian food. A few serve food that really tastes Italian.
Three of the latter that immediately come to mind - Bice in the Gaslamp, Bottega Americano in the East Village and Antica Trattoria in La Mesa - all have chefs born in Italy.
Add downtown San Diego’s 8-month-old Biga to the list of places with authentic-tasting Italian cuisine. But while the perfectly al dente pasta tastes like Mamma made it and the 200-year-old “biga,” or dough starter, originates from Italy, Biga’s chef/owner doesn’t.
Tae Dickey is a native of Maryland and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who made a pit stop in Orange County before opening his first venture here.
Welcome, chef. Now please don’t leave.
What Dickey lacks in Italian roots, he makes up for in spirit, skill and reverence for artisanal Italian cuisine. After four meals at Biga, Dickey’s Twitter bio - “pizza lover, italian food aficionado, lover of all foods authentic and true to their origins” - doesn’t ring like branding bluster.
Just taste that Neopolitan pizza crust, whose biga “mother dough” could be declared a San Diego civic treasure. Rendered crispy and chewy from barely minutes in one of the restaurant’s two 900-degree wood-fired ovens, the crust has that yeasty-sweet quality I’ve tasted in Naples, the mother of all pizza cities.
Those ovens and that biga also turn out stellar focaccia and sandwich rolls. A friend and I had the focaccia one night after I asked a server walking by with some if it was made in-house. She said yes and then moments later returned with some for us to try.
That’s how the service is: friendly and smart. Only once was it friendly but slow. The kitchen was also somewhat sloppy, forgetting an ingredient here, sending out a sub-par chocolate tart there. But way more often than not, I’ve eaten at a table or at the expansive, white Carrera marble bar with a smile on my face.
Roasted purple and yellow beets are as flavorful as they are visually vibrant, and a simple smear of homemade smoked ricotta on the plate delivered a clever contrast. Charred heirloom carrots - lots of dishes here get the “cucinato a legno,” or wood-fired, treatment - were sugared by the heat, making the accompanying cardamom cream more than a pretty embellishment.
I’ve loved every pizza I’ve had, from the white to the wild mushroom, the guanciale and Sicilian Castelvetrano olives to the truffle decadence, and dessert includes the best quick-fried ricotta zeppole (doughnuts) this side of a Bronx street fair.
But I’m just mad for Dickey’s homemade pasta. Only available at dinner, as is table service, it’s the pasta that elevates Biga from an Italian restaurant to an authentic one. The saucing is creative, yet restrained, allowing the light, tooth-perfect, fresh pappardelle, tagliatelle, casarecce and strozzapreti to be the star on the plate.
Strange as it sounds, it’s a pleasure to eat Italian food that tastes so Italian.