Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
On the ground floor of a downtown building that looks good enough to eat, a row of visual cues suggests that the artfully designed space could be seen as one big pizza box. Make that a BIGA pizza box, since the equally artful new BIGA Cucinato A Legno occupies these high- rising premises in the Samuel Fox Building on Broadway at Sixth.
Hungry patrons may rush to the back-of- the-room counter to place orders, not noticing the racks of potted herbs, the bins of firewood, the pair of tiled ovens and the bustling open kitchen. Taken as a series, these elements represent the requirements essential to building great BIGA pizzas, the Naples-style pies that star on a menu also flush with Northern Italian specialties cooked in flame-heated ovens. The savory spectacle seems right at home in the beautiful 1929 building, constructed to house one of San Diego's most distinguished clothiers.
It helps to know that biga is the sourdough starter that Neapolitan pizzaioli (pizza makers) use to ferment dough that eventually is cucinato a legno (baked in wood-fired ovens). The local chef/ restaurateur most mindful of this is Tae Dickey, a 37-year-old raised in Maryland. He owns a prestige degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and one day realized that making biga means making dough. Dickey desired a classy space not surrounded by downtown watering holes, and the long-empty showroom in the Fox structure - which is fronted with elegant iron-work, huge windows, lacy terra cotta friezes and stylish tiles - was the answer. To brush a contemporary overlay onto the Roaring Twenties interior, Dickey contracted Point of Departure Architecture. The firm emphasized the light that pours through two virtual walls of windows by white-washing the columns between them, placing a single olive tree near the center of the dining room, and paneling the wall above the kitchen with rich wood. At one end, a marquee-like BIGA is spelled in glowing lights. It's on Broadway.
"Dickey's distinctive cuisine arrives on plates as design-focused as BIGA."
Dickey's distinctive cuisine arrives on plates as design-focused as BIGA. A man who knows what he wants (and how to sell, given the diner-friendly price-point), Dickey insists on top-notch ingredients, many produced in- house. The letters "HM" repeat across the menu, describing "house made" mozzarella and Italian sausage, both sensational. Even the simplest and most traditional of the pizzas, the Margherita, is lavished with the creamy mozzarella. Surrounded by a handsomely puckered rim of dough, which Neapolitans call "the frame" and typically ignore, the cheese is studded with a few oven-blackened basil leaves and set above just enough perfectly flavored sauce, made from fancy San Marzano tomatoes, of course.
"I hit with salt and fat," says Dickey, describing the effects he wrings from all-purpose Italian bacon called lardo. On his gnudi, or "naked" cheese ravioli (there is no pasta), he pours intensely green, very herbal pesto that he specifies "is true Genoa-style, smooth and silky." There are surprises like pappardelle Alfredo, tossed table-side until the pasta is creamy with butter and Parmesan. The wood-roasted all-natural hangar steak is exquisite, as is deluxe, made-to-order warm mozzarella doused with sophisticated truffle cream.
Gently priced but beautifully prepared cuisine is a novelty on the Southwest corner of Sixth and Broadway, and Dickey dictates an environment that matches the fare. There is not a single television monitor in the restaurant, and there never will be, he says.
"If guests want TV, they can go to a sports bar," Dickey says. "I want guests to focus on the food."
950 Sixth Ave., Downtown