The Test Kitchen — that temporary restaurant with a rotating roster of chefs — is no more, but in its place we get Sotto, a new Italian restaurant from Steve Samson and partner Zach Pollack. And it's ample compensation. The name means "under" or "beneath," and that's literally where it is, down a few steps from Pico Boulevard, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, beneath Ricardo Zarate's even newer Picca.
With its southern Italian menu, Neapolitan pizza and savvy Italian wine list, Sotto stakes out a claim as a new kind of Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. The kitchen could be more consistent, and the pasta and dessert sections need a little work, but all and all, Sotto could be the restaurant that breaks the L.A. northern Italian mold.
With its rustic dishes, plain décor and cozy seating, Sotto feels very like a buca in Florence or Rome. Banquettes upholstered in stripes line the walls. Tables are rough wood. And a single antique chandelier dangles over the tall communal table. That's where you want to sit if you want to see the action at the enormous yellow-tiled wood-burning pizza oven. Samson had it imported from Naples, Italy, complete with someone to put it together. It's mesmerizing watching the pies slide in and out of the oven's warm glow on a wooden peel. It takes but a few minutes to turn a round of pale dough into a pizza, bubbled and blackened at the edges, the sign of an oven that's hot enough to do the job properly.
Fair warning: This is not the place to come if carbs have been banned from your diet. It would be almost impossible to resist ordering a pizza as they sail by practically under your nose, wafting the good smells of tomato and garlic and fresh-baked bread. Samson is no newcomer to pizza. He developed the pizzas at David Myers' Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, which were, under his tenure, hands down, the best in the county and certainly the most authentic. Pollack put in some time there too, and with that experience behind them, Sotto's pizzas show off what the two have learned about dough and working with a wood-fired oven.
Of course, they're Neapolitan in style, which means a supple crust, somewhat soft at the center, light on the toppings. The Margherita — tomato, mozzarella, basil, extra-virgin olive oil — is excellent, made with a loose, fresh-tasting tomato sauce dotted with pools of molten cheese. The guanciale has wonderful flavors of cured pork cheek with tender ricotta and a dusting of fennel powder. But my favorite so far has been the carciofini, topped with ricotta and marinated artichokes. They've got a calzone, a half moon practically big as a leg of lamb, stuffed with burrata and escarole accented with Gaeta olives and capers. The great thing is that Sotto serves pizzas at lunch, the better to appreciate the pies without the distraction of other dishes.
And you will be distracted by the small and medium plates on the menu. Samson is half-Italian and grew up with the taste of Italian food. He also did a short stint as chef at Valentino. The surprise is how gutsy Sotto's menu is, filled with regional Italian dishes, mostly from southern Italy, few of them seen in these parts much. Dishes like pig coratella, a rustic dish of pork innards sweetened with oven-dried tomatoes and served with grilled bread. Each bite carries something different. Or lamb belly agrodolce, braised in a sweet-tart sauce dosed with vinegar.
But why not start with some chickpea panelle? Nice has its socca. Southern Italy has its panelle. The fritters are fried to a warm gold, creamy inside. Or try the quite wonderful sardines alla piastra (seared on the griddle) with shaved fennel and a citrus salad. Meatballs grilled on lemon leaves are perfect for sharing, savory bundles with the sweet taste of pork. And fried calamaretti (baby squid) are the lightest, crispiest ever. What a treat.
Funny enough, pasta doesn't seem to be the restaurant's strong suit. Or at least not on my last couple of visits. The kitchen is committed to handmade pasta, and that doesn't mean the usual flat noodles but hand-rolled fusilli and Sardinian maharrones and squiggly casarecce (a word that literally means homemade).
Trouble is they're clumsy and thick, sometimes gummy or too chewy and not all that appealing, despite the unusually rustic sauces. They're not in sync with the rest of the menu. I almost wish they'd resort to some high-quality dried pasta. The one exception is the casarecce with a deep groove down the middle, the better to capture the lovely nuanced lamb ragù. Pastas are served in Italian-size portions — small enough that you can have something else after.
Make that the smashing Devil's Gulch pork chop encrusted with whole fennel seeds. Nicely cooked, it's juicy and moist, wonderful with roasted carrots and favas. Genoa-style beef brisket is immensely satisfying, with a deep beefy flavor, served very simply in its juices with a little onion and potatoes. And who doesn't enjoy a half chicken cooked under a brick? This one is a textbook example, crisp-skinned and golden. Not exciting, but satisfying.
The excellent Italian wine list was put together by Jeremy Parzen, an old friend of Samson's who once taught Italian and cinema at UCLA. A food historian and rock musician, Parven now lives and blogs (Do Bianchi is the name) from Austin, Texas. He's stuffed the list with bottles to expand anybody's knowledge of renowned and lesser-known appellations and producers.
Throughout the evening, groups of friends and customers wander in to hang out at the bar sipping "biciclettas" and amari. The crowd is actually remarkably diverse in age and style, which also makes Sotto feel more like Italy than, well, Pico Boulevard.
Come dessert, go with the cannoli. How often do you see the classic Sicilian dessert on a menu around here? These have a beautifully crisp shell and a very sweet ricotta filling. Chocolate crostata gives a bittersweet chocolate fix: It's sort of a fudge pie soft as pudding. Sheep's milk yogurt panna cotta, though, is excessively sweetened with honey, far too much of a good thing. The good thing is that you can follow up the sweets with a caffè corretto, an espresso "corrected" with grappa.
Samson and company have come up with a vibrant concept for Sotto. Anchored by the pizzas and filled out with rustic southern Italian dishes, the menu offers an authentic handmade take on a side of Italian cuisine that gets short shrift in L.A. Enough of the same old same old, here's an Italian restaurant that's proud of the south.
Rating: two stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
LOCATION: 9575 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 277-0210, http://www.sottorestaurant.com
PRICE: Small plates, $5 to $7; medium plates, $9 to $14; large plates, $21 to $31; pizza, $9 to $16; pasta, $14 to $16; dessert, $6 to $8.
DETAILS: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Corkage fee, $18. Valet parking, $5.50.