Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sotto - Rising Star, 'Below Ground'

When fellow bloggers suggested Sotto for dinner last week, I was moderately enthused - though I looked forward to meeting fellow foodies, I'm usually not a huge fan of Italian when it comes to fine dining(with the Mozzas being notable exceptions) and weary of the 'scene' of all the hype. 

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. 

Housemade bread - lardo pestato ($7) I'd read Jonathan Gold's review mentioning bread that came with pureed lard instead of olive oil, and couldn't wait to try it.  Totally insane and ingenioius at the same time - I can't think of another place that serves straight up lard this way (let me know if you find one!).  The rich meaty flavors and creamy fatty consistency was heaven spread over a hefty piece of perfectly toasted, crusty bread.  Definitely a new favorite and one that will be drawing me back to the trough.
Next up was Pittule pugliese (vincotto, ricotta) ($5) - part of the fun of ordering this dish was not knowing what was going to arrive on the plate.  Turns out these were little knobs of fried dough with ricotta and oil for dipping on the side.  Personally I thought the dough was oily, crusty and bland, reminding me of what you'd get if you ordered a plate of fish & chips - and took out all the fish and all the chips.  Two of us wanted the cheese to be more creamy and rich - this was probably my least favorite dish of the night - but others at the table enjoyed it for the most part.

With three small plates neatly put away, we moved on to our first course from the 'medium' section - Tomato-braised octopus ai ferri (chickpeas, preserved lemon, chard, bottarga) ($14)  I saw 'octopus' and 'bottarga' and considered the rest background noise.  Though evenly infused with rich flavor, I felt the octopus could have used a bit of a longer braise as the meat was still a bit  tough and chewy, requiring some effort with knife-work.  The bottarga was nice shaved over the tentacle, though a bit overwhelmed by the other pungent flavors in the dish (I may be a bit biased though as my favorite preparation of bottarga is simply sliced and lightly pan fried, then served with radish to let its amazing flavors take the spotlight - call me a purist).  Chickpeas and chard added nice textural contrast.
Next up was Grilled pork meatballs (lemon leaves, snap peas, pecorino, bitter greens) ($10) - loved this dish with its super succulent, gamey tasting meatballs and beautiful plating.

Moving on to pastas - we were also drawn to the originality of the Squid ink fusilli lunghi (pistachios, bottarga, mint) ($16) - as listed on the menu, anyway, with the unusual combination of ingredients.  I really wanted to love this dish and rave about it as my favorite - but unfortunately I felt that the pasta not only resembled black Twizzlers in appearance, but in its chewy consistency as well.  I also expected the bottarga to be more pronounced, but could barely taste it in the dish, though I can clearly see lots of it.

Our other pasta dish: Toasted grain capunti (ragu bianco, hedgehog mushrooms, rapini greens) ($15) - this one was solid, but unremarkable.

Our one dish from the 'large' section of the menu was Devil's Gulch fennel-encrusted pork chop (roasted baby carrots, fava beans) ($31) - this was simply amazing and turned out to be my favorite main of the night - it had 'sizzle', was incredibly juicy and tender - with the right balance of fat to flesh, and the thin 'shell' of fennel seed giving off intoxicating aromas so that you're seduced by the scent alone before you even take your first bite.  I would normally balk at a $31 pork chop, but forgot all about that the minute I saw/smelled/tasted the dish.  And the cost wasn't so bad when split amongst 4 people. Though at this price it would probably not make it into my 'regular rotation' (it's almost the price of a 3-courser plus glass of wine at Osteria Mozza: or what I like to call "1 unit of Mozza"!).

Of course, no meal at Sotto would be complete without a taste of pizzas from the custom oven.  We went with the two that had more unique sounding toppings:

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.
Our second pie was the Boscaiola pizza (hen of the woods, wild ramps, capretto Sardo) ($17) - this was a great mushroom pizza, though it would have been nice to allow the unique blooming structure of the hen of the woods to shine through more, as well as its meaty flavor by perhaps placing them in clusters vs. shreds.  Same comments as the Guanciale on the pizza crust.

Bittersweet chocolate crostata (sorry, missed the price as I was ready to collapse into a food coma by this point) - we may not be the best judge of this one as we were all beyond full by the time dessert came round.  Though it was the one that appealed to us most out of the three choices available, we all felt this was a bit too rich and dense. Though, really interesting with its blend of sweet and savory flavors with chocolate and rosemary.

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
Ph: 310.277.0210

Website: sottorestaurant.com
Look for reservations: Opentable.com/Sotto

Sotto on Urbanspoon

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