Say it twice 

Sotto Sotto still serves sublime cuisine, but the atmosphere is mellower

Our server sets down a salad of chaste, fastidiously arranged ingredients, and for a brief moment the jaded rant starts to rev up in my head: Buffalo mozzarella and roasted peppers? A slight variation on the same ol' summertime warhorse of rubbery cheese and unripe tomatoes. Blahbitty blah double-blah.

Then I catch myself. I've come to Sotto Sotto precisely to squelch that cynical mind-set.

And it's hard to feel crusty after a couple bites of this sharply conceived starter. Spry strips of roasted yellow pepper mingle with white anchovies over orbs of pillowy mozzarella. Plump capers are mindfully scattered about. What synthesizes the four elements - two assertive, two mild - is a slick of potent green olive oil, so alive it makes the corners of the tongue tingle. Each mouthful has a climactic zing before it dissipates into a milky denouement.

Such close attention to quality is a hallmark of both traditional Italian cuisine and Sotto Sotto, but one of the things I've always loved about this restaurant is how it defies categorization. Yes, it is our city's truest expression of fresh, grounded Italian cooking, but chef/owner Riccardo Ullio isn't above a canny experiment here and there.

I think many folks look at Sotto Sotto as a borderline special occasion destination. Sure, you can go crazy with wine and multiple courses, but this place really isn't a bank breaker. Over the years I've come to regard it as an ideal third date restaurant that communicates "I'm digging your scene" to a new paramour in a relaxed, unstuffy way.

And speaking of scene, Ullio has always made Sotto Sotto a spot to swill martinis before you begin communing in earnest with your antipasto misto. Until recently, he never seemed to mind the noise level that the singular mix of scenesters and foodies generated. The racket from the restaurant's opening years still ricochets in my head. I gave up eating here on weekends after one particularly dispiriting Saturday night when I roared across a short table and was understood about half the time.

But six years in business has mellowed Sotto Sotto. The cacophony has diminished with help from a sound engineer and noise-absorptive paneling that looks like blue carpet on the ceiling. Ullio, who was once a brooding presence, has simmered down, too. These days, he often trades in his chef's whites for the stripy, untucked shirts of the perpetually hip as he works the dining room. I've even caught him smiling as he seats customers.

With less ruckus and tension, it's easier to appreciate the room's soothing, subtle touches: the shimmery mother-of-pearl tile around the bar; the craggy back wall that hints at the building's past lives; the rounded wood-fire oven glimpsed through a window showcasing the industrious, crowded kitchen.

The simple glory of Ullio's food is more evident as well. In winter, I daydream about his free-form lasangette alla Bolognese and his pappardelle with braised duck. In the spring, I crave the fava beans with nibbly little hunks of pecorino, and the asparagus with hazelnuts, arugula and lemon, a salad I'll also happily eat alongside a pesto-covered pizza next door at Ullio's Fritti.

And in July's lurid heat? Besides the mozzarella and peppers number, I want the risotto basilico, a sterling expression of summer with marinated tomatoes and minty slivers of basil. Of course, I also must have the risotto Mantecato, a transcendental dish dreamt up by Ullio with golden flecks of caramelized onions and a well of 12-year-old balsamic vinegar that you stir into the rice. In both cases, the rice is cooked just to dissipating creaminess, and the al dente bite is left intact. It's as good as risotto gets in a restaurant, which is how I justify ordering half-portions of each instead of choosing between the two.

On the whole, I'm drawn more to Sotto Sotto's risottos, pastas and entrees than I am to many of the appetizers. Perhaps I've simply grown overly familiar with his delicate take on Caesar salad (I've eaten that a lot at Fritti as well), but I'm definitely ready for a new variation on scallops: The Cape Sante - seared jumbo scallops over truffled, tomatoey white beans and wilted arugula - has been on the menu since I can remember. I'm sure Ullio's nimble culinary mind could unearth a fresh angle for those beleaguered mollusks.

There's something inherently strange about vitello tonnato, chilled veal slices under a smooth blanket of tuna sauce. Every time I eat it, I understand what it must be like to keep kosher but sneak a forbidden taste of beef stroganoff now and then. Veal and tuna together feels like a dietary no-no of some sort. But if you get past the idea of it, vitello tonnato offers quiet pleasures. The flavors are so gentle they take a backseat to the silky mouthfeel of the thinly sliced meat and pureed sauce.

I have absolutely no hesitations about any of the pastas. Well, except maybe the naked spinach and ricotta ravioli, a late concession to the low-carb crew. Beyond that misstep, have at it all. The tortelli di Michelangelo remains suavely unctuous, as does the wild mushroom tagliatelli. Spaghetti alla Chitarra - mussels and clams in a thick, assertive tomato-based sauce - has much more of a punch than the Spaghetti alla Bottarga, which surprised me. Bottarga is dried, yellow-orange mullet roe from Sardinia. Combined with lemon and parsley, the taste is surprisingly docile and only vaguely oceanic.

Every Sotto Sotto regular I know raves about two things: the chocolate soup and the wood grilled fish. With reticence, I'll admit I don't care for the chocolate soup. It feels like I'm eating a bowl of melted Nestle Toll House chocolate chips (I know, that probably sounds like rapture to many of you). I'd much rather order the ricotta cheesecake or, for that matter, a cheese plate with soft, pleasantly stinky Robiola, definitive Gorgonzola dolce and a nutty hunk of Parmigiano reggiano. And linger over the last drops of my of raisiny Amarone wine that I splurged on - again.

But I'll gladly rhapsodize about the grilled fish, meticulously boned at the table by a friendly server who's long lost count of how many of these creatures the restaurant has deconstructed. The garlicky bundle of spinach and crispy potatoes are lifted off from the scalding plate, and the fish is anointed with a lemony emulsion spiked with stray thyme leaves. It was as memorable on a recent evening as it was when I first tried it in 1999.

That recent evening, actually, was the first time I'd been back to Sotto Sotto on a Saturday night in four years. And though I fretted about it when I was walking through the door, it wasn't until the grilled fish inspired recollections of past meals here that I realized I'd been chatting amiably at peak dinner hour with no vocal strain. Boy, those noise-absorptive panels really work. Guess I can start bringing dates here on the weekends, too.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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