Los Angeles may be known for its health food, its fast food and, more recently, its boundary-pushing restaurants, but the truth is that our high-end dining is mainly drenched in ragu. That is to say, we're suckers for Italian food, and, in 2017 in particular, the restaurateurs of L.A. plan to cater to that obsession. When I put together my list of restaurants to look forward to in this coming year, four of the six anticipated spots were Italian. Since then, other Italian projects have come to light: The recently closed Terrine will morph into the Ponte, an Italian restaurant with spaghetti master Scott Conant as chef; downtown has a new sandwich shop dedicated entirely to Roman-style focaccia.
Two of the venues on my list of mainly Italian forthcoming openings are the work of chefs who already have made important contributions to L.A.'s Italian food scene. Steve Samson and Zach Pollack launched Sotto in 2011, giving L.A. some of its most accomplished and regionally specific Italian food. In 2014, Pollack left to open Silver Lake's Alimento, a less slavishly authentic Italian restaurant than Sotto but just as serious in terms of culinary ambition.
Now both have new projects in the works: Samson will open Rossoblu downtown sometime soon, and Pollack is on the verge of launching Cosa Buona in Echo Park.
On the eve of yet another round of Italian newcomers, and as these two chefs prepare to become multi-unit operators, it's worth taking another look at Alimento and Sotto. Excitement over what's shiny and new is all well and good, but sometimes we ought to pause and give thanks for the gifts we already have, lest we begin to take them for granted.
When I originally reviewed Alimento in September 2014, I could tell that Pollack had created something special. His mortadella pig in a blanket took everything that's good about the iconic American snack and gave it a wonderful soigné veneer, while simultaneously adding gooey cheese and sauerkraut to somehow ramp up the gleeful fun factor. Alimento's crudo appetizer, made up of fat hunks of raw, buttery escolar over eggplant puree, remains one of my favorite dishes in the city.
But I also had a few complaints. The room was deafeningly loud, and the food was in some instances searingly salty. It certainly didn't strike me as one of the best restaurants in the city.
Two and a half years later, however, Alimento can absolutely bear the weight of that distinction. The meals I've had more recently there have been head-spinningly, stunningly great, so much so that at first I wondered if I'd stumbled into a fluke of lucky ordering and high kitchen morale. But subsequent meals have had the same magical quality, for which I found myself saying, “Holy crap, this is good” out loud, multiple times.
It began late in 2015 with a steak dinner that seemed like a splurge at $78 before it arrived, all 40 ounces of perfectly medium-rare rib-eye served sliced on a wooden platter over potato fonduta and under a salsa verde imbued with the distinctive pong of anchovy. The steak had that wondrous bloody tang, the creamy potatoes lent a luxurious foundation, and the unapologetic stank of the salsa verde offered a fishy whiff of sex and wonder. I have not stopped thinking of that steak since.
The pig in a blanket and the escolar dishes have lost none of their shine, and newer menu additions live up to those early successes' precedent of greatness. There's a bracing, Italian-leaning Caesar salad that makes glorious use of white radicchio's natural bitterness and its compatibility with sharp cheese. Pastas remain flawless. The braised-lettuce bruschetta utilizes the creamy smoosh of burrata in a way you've never experienced, and that's saying something in a town overrun with burrata-on-toast variations.
Is it still too loud? Possibly, though Pollack has made an effort to implement sound-absorbing solutions. Either way I didn't notice; I was too busy being thrilled by the food.
I never reviewed Sotto, which Pollack opened with Steve Samson six years ago. That distinction belongs to my predecessor, Jonathan Gold, who certainly had very nice things to say about the place. But L.A. Weekly did not give out star ratings back then, and Sotto is one of those restaurants that I fear does not get the ongoing credit it deserves. And it deserves a whole lot of credit.
Much was made of the Stefano Ferrara pizza oven Samson and Pollack had installed when Sotto opened, and it's true that as a result of that oven Sotto still turns out some of the best pizza in the city. That's no small feat — but there's much to laud in Samson's nonpizza, hyper-regional Southern Italian cooking as well.
While we exclaim over the new vegetable-focused small plates all over town, Samson is quietly executing an exceedingly thoughtful range of vegetable antipasti, focusing less on unexpected flavors and more on the cooking method that best suits each individual ingredient, be it a marinated trumpet mushroom or a delicata squash. On the meaty opposite of the spectrum, a warm pork terrine pulls no punches in its loose, fatty funk. It's topped with a bracing citrus and fennel salad, which contrasts starkly with the terrine — you get lush fat and also opposing bright, palate-cleansing acid in each bite.
There are meat-heavy pastas, warming and comforting and decadent in their saucy glory, and a small selection of entrees that never disappoints. If there's a whole grilled fish on the menu, you should order it.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Sotto is its wildly affordable wine list. In an era where the most casual restaurants often have very little below $60 by the bottle, a big portion of Sotto's list sits a good $15 to $20 cheaper than that, for wines that will delight you and also teach you things — things you wish you'd understood for years — about lesser-known Italian regions and producers.
The thing that Alimento and Sotto have in common, other than the two chefs who helped to change the way we think about Italian cooking in this city, is that they're restaurants you can take for granted, in the best possible way. They're dependably fantastic, service is great, they're always there for you. As a new wave of Italian restaurants crashes onto L.A.'s scene, it's worth giving thanks for the riches we already possess. Newness is fun, but I'd trade it all for the type of dependable excellence both Sotto and Alimento deliver. If their new ventures are half as good, we will be very lucky indeed.
ALIMENTO | Four stars | 1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 928-2888 | alimentola.com | Sun. & Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 5:30-11 p.m. | Plates and pasta, $6-$27; entrees $26-$78 | Beer and wine | Valet and street parking
SOTTO | Four stars | 9575 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. | (310) 277-0210 | sottorestaurant.com | Sun.-Thu., 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. | Antipasti $6-$20; pizza and pasta $12-$27; entrees $26-$33 (market-price steaks more) | Full bar | Valet parking