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Jonathan Gold Reviews Sotto 

Thursday, Oct 27 2011
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Click here for Anne Fishbein's slideshow.

First of all, Sotto is not really a pizzeria. I thought I'd get that out of the way. Because while there is an oven, a 15,000-pound behemoth ballasted with imported Vesuvian soil, and chefs Steve Samson and Zack Pollack come from Ortica, the South Coast Plaza restaurant that redefined Orange County pizza, and char-freckled pies do issue from its wood-burning depths, pizza isn't really the point of the place, even if soft-centered Neapolitan pies are your thing, and even if you measure out your life in square inches of mozzarella. Pizza may be on your plate, but the chefs are somewhere else.

This isn't, to be sure, an indictment of Sotto's pizza, which is actually quite decent. There is one pizza, glazed with house-cured pig cheek, glopped with ricotta and sprinkled with what I estimate to be two bucks' worth of fennel pollen, that is among the piggiest pies in town, perhaps rivaled only by another on the same menu with mozzarella, potatoes and melted lardo. The crisp, sauceless calzone, the size of a Fendi bag and stuffed with escarole, olives and a slug of creamy burrata cheese, is named "Homage to Caiazzo,'' after an old town outside Naples with several famous pizzerias, and is as good a calzone as I've ever tasted. Even the standard pizza margherita, simply finished with mozzarella, crushed tomatoes and a bit of strong olive oil, is worth trying.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - House-made bread with lardo pestato

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If you were planning to bio-engineer a restaurant for success in 2011 Los Angeles, you'd probably come up with something that looked a lot like Sotto. The restaurant is in the basement that used to house Test Kitchen, which is to say a space that already inspires a Pavlovian reaction in the most ardent of local foodists. The cocktails, as sophisticated as nearly any in the city, are overseen by the omnipresent Julian Cox and executed by the amaro-fixated Kate Grutman, whose résumé includes the Doheny, Mozza and Terroni, and who is not above flavoring rum with a tincture of Sex Wax, normally used to rub down surfboards. (If you should be in the market for something called the Smart and Fennel, made with gin, orange marmalade and a fennel-scented egg, this is the place, although the farmers market–driven cocktails on Sundays may be even better.)

The menu is powered by reasonably priced sharing plates, and incorporates both local produce and sustainable, artisanally produced meats: braised lamb neck with olives! Buckwheat pasta with pig's head sauce and beet greens! Grilled Wagyu beef tongue with potatoes and salsa verde!

But Sotto is a different kind of Italian restaurant, a shrine to the awesome heat of its oven, a place where the hot, fresh bread can come with pureed lardo instead of olive oil if you like it that way. A special of pan frattau, a kind of Sardinian chilaquiles made with flatbread instead of stale tortillas, is fried with a butcher's bouquet of lamb's innards. And the bruschetta may be smeared not with olive paste but with ciccoli, a paste of lard pureed with pigskin that is one of the signature preparations of the Italian nose-to-tail thing.

Samson and Pollack may be pizzaioli in public, but they really seem to be abattoir jocks instead. The preparations that have practically inspired online fistfights at the food festivals this fall have included the gigantic braised pork shanks from the Devil's Gulch ranch in Marin County, and if it should happen to be on the menu, the jiggly, crusty, sweet-and-sour hunk of meat, what Monterey Park Shanghainese restaurants tend to call "pork pump,'' is big enough to sate half a dozen, and you probably should make sure to secure one the second you sit down.

The menu at Sotto points to Southern Italy instead of the requisite Tuscan dishes, with things like clams cooked with fresh shell beans and the awesomely spicy Calabrian sausage 'nduja; braised octopus tentacles crisped on the griddle and nestled into a bed of chickpeas with preserved lemon; and the little dough puffs called pittule — appetizer doughnuts! — served with fresh ricotta and a drizzle of reduced sweet wine.

Even the pastas tend to be southern things we haven't seen locally, like the twisted noodles called here casarecce (which means nothing more than "homemade''), with a thick paste of simmered lamb thickened with raw egg yolk and sheep cheese, which nods to the Middle East, or jet-black squid ink fusilli tossed with pistachios, grated mullet roe and mint. Sotto's version of the classic Sicilian spaghetti with sardines, raisins and toasted pine nuts, a pasta that even most Italians tend to make with something out of a can, is splendid here, singing with the unsubtle fragrance of fresh grilled sardines and walloped with wild fennel.

For dessert? Take the cannoli. Really. And a proper caffe corretto, with a slug of raw grappa on the side.

SOTTO | 9575 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. | (310) 277-0210 | sottorestaurant.com | Lunch Tues.-Fri., noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. | AE, DC, MC, V | Full bar | Valet parking | Snacks $3-$8; pastas and "medium" plates $11-$15; pizzas $14-$16; main courses $21-$30 | Recommended dishes: pittule with ricotta; grilled mackerel in scarpecce; casarecce pasta with lamb ragu, egg and pecorino; white calzone

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