An Italian Affair
A Charles Street staple continues to shine
More than a decade after opening its doors, Sotto Sopra still feels like a night out. Never mind that some folks are in jeans while others are in ties and sports jackets. Dim lighting, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, the delightfully old-fashioned tiled floor (a leftover from the building's days as an optician's office), and those sweeping umber-orange drapes that separate the bar and the back of the restaurant from the tables up front still make Sotto Sopra, like its Charles Street neighbor, Sascha's, seem like one of those moody little joints you always hope to find when visiting a strange city.
The food at Sotto Sopra has maintained that same kind of jazzy downtown elegance without being too formal, and this is part of its success. Hunkered down over a snug table, you feel far from the garlic and red sauce of Little Italy. And yet, Sotto Sopra is still wholly Italian, just more Mastroianni than Mario Puzo. Here ravioli is stuffed with duck (as well as with cheese or veal); wine offerings extend across Italy, including a lovely Sardinian Cannonau by the glass; and gnudi (think smaller than a gnocchi) wear mushrooms or just enough light tomato sauce to keep them from floating in the air. Was my meal here the best I've had in Baltimore? No. But it was lively, well-executed, and somewhat reasonably priced, which is a grace itself in this economy, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It should be noted, however, that Sotto Sopra becomes a slightly different restaurant several nights a month, so it pays to check the restaurant's web site to see if the evening promises a meal cooked by a "Chef for a Day" or whether it's Opera Night or the intriguingly conceptual "Pay What You Want Dinner." My visit coincided with a slightly smaller than usual holiday menu, although judging from the menu posted on the restaurant's web site, there was some overlap.
I strongly hope the cioppino ($14) and the polenta with mushrooms ($11) remain on the menu after the holidays. We were concerned about the size of the soup--would it be too much for an appetizer? Should we pair it with a salad for a meal? "It's not too large," our server told us, cupping her hands to make the shape of a small bowl. But the cioppino was as generous in quantity as it was in quality, brimming with mussels, scallops, and shrimp that nearly melted into the thick tomato broth, and our server apologized for mis-remembering its size as soon as she brought it to the table. No matter. Not a bit of it, nor the sweet and savory polenta, covered in a forest of greens and mushrooms, so light and frothy it was hard to believe there was even grain in it, went to waste.
Having had our fill of Christmas roast, we neglected Sotto Sopra's beef offerings, though both short ribs and prosciutto-wrapped fillet medallions would have been on our radar any other time of year. Instead, came three dishes, each dressed in tomato sauce, and it is to the kitchen's credit that each sauce was distinct. Small buttons of ricotta gnocchi ($18) napped in fresh light tomato with basil--more a puree than sauce--were nearly weightless and addictively good. The sauce for the spaghetti in the shrimp pasta ($21) boasted small nuggets of garlic, plus shrimp, heftier and sweeter than the small pink curls in the cioppino, while the rockfish's ($28) red was closer to the cioppino--thick, substantial, and loaded with capers and green olives. The chunky mash of celery root, its earthy strength a better foil than potatoes, made a creamy bed for the thick white fillet. Only the chicken ($26) came plain, and plain it was, accompanied by bitter broccoli rabe and a warm slice of sausage-stuffed bread, moistened with pan juices. It stood out at the table, like a well-cut tweed suit in a sea of red cocktail dresses, nicely made, if slightly underwhelming.
Desserts, on the other hand, were not as impressive, and with the exception of a moist bread pudding made with panettone ($8), Sotto Sopra's sweets are less graceful than the other portions of the meal. A bruléed slice of Grand Marinier-infused Italian-style cheesecake ($8) was overwhelmed by squiggles of chocolate sauce, and chocolate layer cake ($8) with a dollop of raspberry sorbet got the same outdated treatment.
Despite that, Sotto Sopra remains a downtown treat, a sentiment captured in the restaurant's jewel-toned mural that depicts people eating, drinking, shaving, and showering. The bottom of the mural is edged in mirrors, so that little portions of ourselves, sated and wine-flushed, are reflected, making us one with the picture. It is a scene we are happy to join.