Creative Loafing:You hail from northern Italy, right? How does that influence your vision of a restaurant?
Riccardo Ullio: I was born in Milan, and my family is from the Piedmont region. I go back all the time. I did quite a bit of research before opening Sotto Sotto in order to get new ideas. Restaurants here and there are very different in the way they operate. For one thing, Italian people, when they go out, they make an evening out of it. They really like to take their time when they eat. The service here has to be much faster, so it's a completely different dining experience. I take my inspiration of food from Italy, but as far as dining? It's an American thing.
You cook with the tastes of home in mind. How do you mix tradition with innovation?
My food -- I think of it as comfort food. It's home-cooked food, yet it's not something that people would make at home. Modernity has taken its toll, even in Italy, but 50 years ago, people did make it at home. Grandmothers' and mothers' and farmhouse kind of cooking. It's very straightforward and honest and simple. There aren't a whole lot of ingredients and nothing's worked a whole lot -- and that's what Italian food is about.
One of your signature dishes, risotto with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar, is something of a sensation. What part of Italy does that hail from?
That's actually an innovation. That's something I've kinda come up with on my own. I like balsamic vinegar, I cook a lot with it. That's pretty much a dish that I can call my own.
You've done a lot of work to curb the concerns about the noisy dining experience at Sotto Sotto.
The place was loud. My ears would ring after a night of working. Losing hearing is never good. I wish I had addressed it earlier. People are much happier now. I kind of liked it loud, but a lot of people didn't. When the place is packed on Saturday night, it's still loud, but it doesn't have the bouncing off the walls.
I've seen you out and about in town -- from MJQ to the Blondie concert a few months back.
I enjoy having a good time for sure, that's kinda what it boils down to. In the restaurant, our happy hour is midnight. You get out of work, you have a lot of adrenaline. You have to let loose. It's important. You've got to work hard and play hard -- but not too hard or you get in trouble. (Laughs.) You have to balance your life out.
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