When it housed Test Kitchen, the dim, low-ceilinged restaurant space below the old Orlando-Orsini had a kind of cheerful rec-room vibe, like a pop-up jazz club where the artists just happen to wield knives instead of saxophones. As Sotto, the new Italian restaurant from Steve Samson and Zack Pollack, who ran David Meyer's Pizza Ortica at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, somebody sprung to fix up the basement, because it is suddenly intimate instead of cramped, dedicated to wine instead of cocktails, and has a sense of stability only a $15,000 pizza oven ballasted with imported Vesuvian dirt can provide.
Sotto is a somewhat different kind of Italian restaurant, you understand, a place where the bread comes with pureed lardo instead of olive oil, the ramp-fava bruschetta is sprinkled with crisp cubes of housemade pancetta and the crispy lozenges that show up as appetizers are not tater tots but fried ciccoli, a paste of lard and pigskin that is one of the signature preparations of the national nose-to-tail thing. Samson and Pollack are abattoir jocks.
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The menu at least nominally points to southern Italy instead of the requisite Tuscan dishes, with things like smoky grilled cuttlefish with eggplant, lamb ribs glazed with a vinegary reduction and the little dough puffs called pittule -- appetizer doughnuts! -- 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 with raw egg yolk and sheep cheese that nods to the Middle East, or jet-black squid ink fusilli tossed with grated mullet roe and mint. And the pizza? Not quite sublime yet -- maybe the oven needs a few months to break in. But the thick slices of guanciale that pave the pizza with fennel pollen and ricotta pack a sublimely piggy wallop.