In L.A. we’re not accustomed to walking down steps to enter a restaurant. In other cities it’s so common, you hardly notice that’s how you pop into your favorite trattoria, except to make sure you don’t bump your head on the old doorway. You don’t have to gauge door height or duck to enter Sotto—the building’s too new for that—but Steve Samson and Zach Pollack’s spot on Pico does feel like a slice of the Old World. In the chiaroscuro of the windowless interior, you might see a cook tying a pork loin around a spit, the barkeep pouring deep red Puglian primitivo, or a waitress rushing through with a platter of grilled mackerel fillets under a jumble of cured lemon peel and minced capers. A table of friends passes around a plate of oven-roasted peppers, one guy dropping the last bite into his mouth in a gesture of pure delight. With a little effort (and a little more wine), you may be able to convince yourself that the nearest landmark is an outcropping of sun-bleached ruins rather than the billboard-bedecked entrance to the Fox lot.
The dining room has an everyday aspect. Vintage bulbs hang over rough-hewn wood tables; striped banquettes take a halfhearted stab at elegance; a communal table commands the oak-sided dining room, one end grazing the counter of the open kitchen where Samson and Pollack work. The two—Samson is 43; Pollack, 27—are a well-honed team. Samson mans the stove, a black sweatband around each wrist. The interest sparked by the pastas his Italian grandmother prepared when he was growing up in Tarzana didn’t truly ignite until, after receiving a B.A. in history from UC San Diego, he turned to cooking, eventually rising to head Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino. Pollack didn’t have the benefit of a bona fide nonna. As an architecture student at Brown, the West L.A. native was more drawn to Palladio than the bitter wild chicory puntarelle. But then passion took hold, and he found himself working a series of short stints at Sicily’s elegant Il Duomo and outlying farm restaurants before returning to Los Angeles to work at David Myers’s Sona and Neal Fraser’s Grace, where he met Samson. The pair went on to lead Myers’s Pizzeria Ortica in the O.C. Pollack is the pizzaiolo of the two, at ease wielding a long peel in the wood-burning oven, rotating the dishes beneath the refractory bricks, pivoting now and then to toss pizza dough.
Their partner in the venture is Bill Chait, the man who started Louise’s and has entered a second career bankrolling cutting-edge chefs like John Sedlar and Ricardo Zarate (who will soon open Picca, a nouveau-Peruvian restaurant upstairs). Sotto strives for the sort of modest craftsmanship you might come across at a neighborhood Italian joint—albeit one in Naples, not Hoboken. For the oven, everything down to the builder and the cement were imported from Italy. The wine list is chockablock with finds, like plumy gaglioppo, a varietal that excels in Calabria, the drought-ridden toe of Italy. Sardines are from Portugal. They’re terrific, too: Charred and heaped with a crushed olive-pistachio vinaigrette, they have a resilience and a delicacy that California sardines just don’t (sorry, locavores). All is effortlessness and restraint here. For their version of the Puglian specialty pittule, the chefs flash-fry strands of dough—naturally leavened, the way it’s been done for centuries—and serve them with a dollop of fresh ricotta and a drizzle of tawny vincotto, or cooked wine. Thick fava pesto brings out the concentrated power of the striated head cheese.
It’s pretty well established that you don’t have to be born and bred in Italy to get Italian cooking. In London, River Café forged the necessary link between cookbook writer Elizabeth David, who taught mid-century England about the pleasures of the Mediterranean kitchen, and Jamie Oliver, who trained in the Thames-side restaurant before becoming a star chef. Closer to home, Evan Kleiman captured something fundamental about the cuisine when she opened Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue in 1984, narrowing her sights on the most humble elements of the food with her austerely dressed pastas and her love of wild greens.
Of course the city has other sharp Italian restaurants run by non-natives (Cecconi’s, Scarpetta, Mozza, etcetera), but they don’t have the same frame of reference or communal memory as Italian-born chefs. When Gino Angelini of Beverly Boulevard’s Angelini Osteria shaves bottarga over a pasta, he is bringing a lifetime of nuance to the act. We’ve all experienced the opposite effect in restaurants that carry on about olive oil and tradition while faking the rustic (yes, there’s such a thing as too peasanty), fussing over what should be simple, and adding an extra element rather than trusting, as the best Italian food does, in the power of good ingredients.
Samson and Pollack have authentic chops. They display their credentials right off the bat in the menu’s small plates section with ciccioli, batons of pig parts (you name it, it’s there) that have been slowly simmered, allowed to set, and then pan seared. Musky and rich, gelatinous and crisp, it is a distinctly indigenous dish that’s likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t raised in Italy. (The closest to it in America is the scrapple that the Pennsylvania Dutch grow up on.) In fact, Italian-born cooks might question offering the dish as finger food to an American audience. Yet the interplay of opposites that Samson and Pollack achieve brilliantly articulates Italian rustic cooking—its genius for maximizing flavor and for making use of every available scrap of flesh.
Though ciccioli is served in some northern reaches (I’ve enjoyed it in the alpine fog of Bergamo), if you look at the boot of Italy, the chefs stick almost exclusively below the knee. They rarely venture north of the region of Lazio on the Atlantic side or north of Abruzzo on the Adriatic; Autostrade A1 is their Mason-Dixon line. Such focus adds to the integrity of their food. You see finely calibrated technique all around the table rather than a culinary collage. Where so many restaurants automatically shower their plates with parmigiano, Samson and Pollack won’t use it; the region of Emilia-Romagna, where the cheese comes from, is outside their ken. So their cheese choices seem that much more thoughtful and meaningful. Fiore sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese, gives a shot of thyme to the tomato sauce bathing the maharrones, a Sardinian pasta that looks like tiny cross-hatched dumplings. Without the fiore sardo, the flavors could be bland; with it, they’re perfect. That same cheese would drown out the subtlety of the appetizer called Blistered Little Gems. Instead pecorino moliterno, a sheep’s milk from the high altitudes of the Basilicata region, accentuates the ancho-vies and bread crumbs that are spread over the charred lettuce leaves.
When dishes don’t succeed, it is because the straight lines of the chefs’ technique disappear and suddenly we’re in the domain of murky flavors and unnecessary ingredients. A schmear of lardo pestato, a fancy-pants kind of lard, can’t hide the fact that the bread dough, naturally leavened though it may be, is seriously undersalted. The chickpeas that lend earthiness to the stew of braised octopus with bottarga add a pasty texture when thrown into flakes of baccalà, or salt cod, and thick ribbons of tagliatelle. The whole grilled orata (prissily taken off the bone by the kitchen, diminishing the flavor and ruining the texture; if you’re going to cook it whole, you should serve it that way, too) winds up an oily mush. I suppose the scattering of almonds, wild fennel, and currants on the side is intended to pay homage to the Sicilian penchant for North African ingredients, but the entrée is drowning in grease. Samson and Pollack are far too skilled for that.
One of my favorite things to eat here is the seppia, tender cuttlefish grilled just enough to make the flesh translucent and then placed over Sicilian caponata, a vegetable stew dense with eggplants and zucchini whose broth is amped up by a spoonful of cuttlefish ink on the side of the plate. It’s stupendous. Pollack’s Neapolitan pizzas have the same exquisite complexity, revolving around the spectrum of tones the oven can impart. The margherita is as much singed as baked by the blazing heat, allowing the tart freshness of the tomato sauce to shine. More muscular is the guanciale version, in which thinly sliced pig cheek is layered over islands of ricotta. The dough acquires a darker coloration, almost like a deeply roasted coffee bean, so the big billowing crust becomes a match for—even a foil for—the gaminess of the house-cured meat.
Some food historians claim that ice cream and granita were invented in Sicily, and there’s a long history of Italian desserts that channel the natural surroundings. Fresh fruits, orange flower water, marzipan—you’ll find them flavoring the sweets in towns throughout southern Italy. Samson and Pollack nod to the tradition with their cannoli, crisp barrels stuffed with ricotta and studded with orange peel and pistachios. The salted rosemary caramel on the chocolate crostata, however, is a meek attempt to be both fashionable and authentic, while dried thyme in the panna cotta is a false note that’s too insistent about its country roots. You would think that given how disciplined the chefs are with their ingredients, they could continue their exploration with the final course. Or at least offer more than three options. But perhaps that’s not the point with them. As I sat back after dessert recently, sipping the delicious bittersweetness of my amaro, an herbal liqueur, Samson was ladling pasta water into a pan. Nearby, Pollack glanced toward the crowd waiting by the door, reached for another mound of pizza dough, and began stretching it with flour-dusted hands. For now the two seem to have plenty to do maintaining the integrity that marks every other aspect of Sotto.
Photographs by Misha Gravenor