In the first few months of its existence, Sotto Sopra (which means "upside down" in Italian) is a restaurant that sizzles.
The dining room is wonderfully theatrical; the food, trendy and expensive -- although not outrageously so. A customer breaks (full voice) into an aria, to the amazement of the rest of the room. It's a trip.
If you want to hold a quiet conversation over dinner here, you're out of luck. If you want to see and be seen, Sotto Sopra is as now and wow as you're going to get.
The room where Bowen and King and then the Vanguard Cafe once were has been strikingly redone. Only the cracked tile floors remain, giving the restaurant a touch of ruined elegance. At night the dining room has a golden glow. Murals of cafe scenes and mirrors stretch to the high ceiling; and the appointments, from the maitre d's stand to the whirly, wiry chandeliers, are stunning.
Image is everything at Sotto Sopra. Only image isn't everything. How's the food?
Some of it, I'm happy to say, lives up to the fabulous surroundings -- and the prices. Some of it doesn't.
Start with vitello tonnato -- the star among our first courses. Tissue-thin slices of veal were fanned in a circle, then gilded with a silky sauce of pureed tuna, cream and anchovies.
A crisp-crusted pizza layered with mozarella, prosciutto and arugula would have been almost as good, but the greens (like all our salads) were excessively salty. The salad with balsamic vinaigrette arranged with the zingy scallop seviche was over-salted, the mixed greens with green beans that decorated the fine grilled swordfish were over-salted -- you get the idea.
Come to think of it, the vegetables around the sauteed veal chop, including artichokes, cauliflower, potatoes and red pepper, had been seasoned with a heavy hand as well.
But the homemade spinach ravioli stuffed with ricotta and decorated with a pretty, subtle tomato sauce couldn't have been more delicate. Gnocci made with ricotta in a pink cream of a red pepper sauce were also very good but would work better as a half-order first course than a main dish. A large plate of them got a little monotonous.
It's hard to resist dessert when you see what other customers have ordered, all sauced and swirled and spangled with powdered sugar. The tiny profiteroles with pastry cream and chocolate sauce pleased us, and the sampler of truffles and cookies was lovely; but the mixed berries with creamy zabaglione and vanilla ice cream imported from Italy carried the day.
No, not everything was perfect here; but some of it, like the vitello tonnato, came pretty close. My guess is that Sotto Sopra will eventually decide it has to add more casual food to its menu and lower its prices, as the Ruby Lounge up the street -- its most direct competition -- did. But right now Sotto Sopra is flying high, with every table filled on a rainy Tuesday night.
405 N. Charles St.
Open Sunday through Thursday, 5: 30-10: 30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5: 30-11: 30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers, $6.75-$13; entrees, $10-$25
Pub Date: 5/23/96