Located in a relatively deserted (food-wise) stretch of Pico Blvd., in the space formerly made famous by Test Kitchen, Sotto has an unassuming basement entrance that is easy to miss while driving, and not entirely impressive from the street. I didn't 'get' the website with the neon-ish yellow grid overlay - is it intended to look futuristic? Isn't this positioned to be about 'rustic' Italian fare? But I soon learned there is much more than meets the eye.
Chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack set out to create a market-driven menu of Southern Italian dishes, including the best and freshest Neopolitan pizza - they were so dedicated to this mission they had a special wood-burning oven custom built by a third generation oven-building artisan, with authentic materials imported from Italy, down to Vesuvian sand (you can read all about the construction of the $15,000 custom oven, the first of its kind in LA, at LAWeekly). The basement space (which I'm just guessing inspired the name of the restaurant? "Sotto" means "below" in Italian) is sophisticated but cozy at the same time, designed to showcase the oven from the open kitchen. The long, wooden slab of a communal table, intended for walk-ins, is set right against the kitchen and offers the best view.
Their menu also offers great variety and creativity - and with a party of four we were able to taste a lot more dishes by going 'family style'.
Our first course to start was an Italian classic - Fried calamaretti (lemon, red onion, colatura) ($7) - this was a great start to the meal, well executed with light, crisp batter, thin rings of fresh tasting squid, and clean, simple flavors.
Osteria Mozza: or what I like to call "1 unit of Mozza"!).
Guanciale pizza (house-cured pork cheek, ricotta, scallions, fennel pollen) ($16) - the pork cheek tasted almost like the fat portion of bacon and the pizza overall had an interesting flavor / texture profile with the unexpected combination of ingredients. Again hype works against the restaurant here as we all had very high expectations of the pizza given the spotlight on the woodburning-oven-to-end-all-woodburning-ovens. While the pizza dough was delicious with a nice chew and a pleasing spread of air pockets - it wasn't life-changing. I'm not a pizza connoisseur at all, and can only say that I personally prefer the fluffier and more flavorful dough of pies at Pizzeria Mozza which also seem to be served at hotter (better) temperature.
All in all, Sotto is a great place for a gathering with friends old and new - with classic as well as more inventive Southern Italian dishes. Though quality / taste was inconsistent in our particular meal, I am excited by Sotto's more unusual offerings, really enjoyed the space and ambience and look forward to more great meals there as they get into their groove.
And as for what I learned with this meal? Don't judge a restaurant by its neighborhood / entrance / website design (and/or hype) - look beneath the surface and you just might discover a glowing star.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 100%
9575 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035
Look for reservations: Opentable.com/Sotto