CLIPPERS

A glimpse inside Sotto Sotto Ristorante, the scene of the Blake Griffin fight

One doesn’t need to take a bite of what is widely considered Toronto’s best gnocchi to understand why Clippers star Blake Griffin wanted to dine at Sotto Sotto Ristorante on that regrettable night late last month.

Rapper Drake once called the two-story Italian eatery his second home, and a story in the local Globe and Mail noted that Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt, Bono, Bill Murray, David Beckham, Burt Reynolds, Brooke Shields, Bruce Willis, Blake Lively and Ben Affleck had all dined here — and that was just the A-listers whose names included B’s.

Patrons enter off a chic section of Avenue Road through heavy, overlapping black drapes that shield the dimly lit interior from the bustle of the surrounding neighborhood.

Diners are seated at tables with crisp white linen tablecloths topped with votive candles that flicker beneath walls painted in textured pastels and adorned with paintings of ancient Italian figures.

The thick, bound wine list won a Wine Spectator Best Award of Excellence, and the expansive menu includes such specialties as homemade cannoli and perfectly cooked al dente linguine topped with scallops, lobster and mussels. The busy waitstaff, dressed in all black, never stays in one spot long, though restaurant managers obsequiously check on VIP customers.

The crowd on Thursday night included several NBA executives and Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who strolled in with friends in town for the All-Star game, which is Sunday at Air Canada Centre.

The restaurant is on the small side, and its clientele skews older. It features 11 tightly bunched tables, plus a bar downstairs, as well as a slightly larger upstairs seating area.

This is where Griffin punched longtime friend and Clippers assistant equipment manager Matias Testi on Jan. 23 because of teasing that went too far for Griffin’s liking. The altercation left Griffin with a broken right hand and Testi with a swollen face. One waiter who was not working the night of the incident said he was told by fellow employees the altercation started at a back table on the first floor.

A valet who declined to give his name said he was working down the street by the time the scuffle moved outside. He said he heard a commotion and saw Testi on the ground and caught a glimpse of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who was also dining with his teammate and the popular Clippers staffer that night, but did not see Griffin. The valet said Testi did not appear badly beaten and he had relayed his account of the ordeal to the NBA as part of its investigation.

The Clippers suspended Griffin for four games as a result of the incident and docked his pay for five games. He is expected to start serving the suspension some time in March after his hand is fully healed.

Both Griffin and Testi are expected to rejoin the Clippers after the All-Star break. Griffin is not in Toronto this weekend because he was not selected as an All-Star for the first time in his six NBA seasons after being limited to 30 games so far this season by the broken hand and a previous quadriceps injury.

Griffin was gone but hardly forgotten, still the talk of a restaurant that will forever be linked to his name.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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