Eight years after it opened, Sotto Sopra is one of the success stories on the North Charles corridor, which has seen more than its share of comings and goings. The restaurant's chic decor and casual attitude have given it plenty of trendy appeal. With-it people go there to see and be seen, while the creative southern Italian food is good enough to attract serious eaters. Mount Vernon uses Sotto Sopra as a neighborhood spot, and timid suburbanites are willing to venture downtown because there's valet parking. In fact, Sotto Sopra offers something for everyone -- everyone, that is, who can afford it.
Given that this winning formula has worked for so long, owner / chef Riccardo Bosio has done something rather daring. Three months ago, he brought in Baltimore native James Sibal as executive chef. What's interesting about this choice is that Sibal brings a French sensibility to the restaurant (his most famous previous employer was Commodore's Palace in New Orleans). The changes in Sotto Sopra's menu are subtle but real -- among the classic and contemporary Italian dishes, for instance, you'll now find red snapper with crawfish, corn and tomato ragu.
Not to fret. The dishes that put Sotto Sopra on the map are still front and center. Vitello tonnato stars with tissue-thin slices of braised veal in a creamy tuna sauce with a scattering of capers. The pizza Sotto Sopra (a favorite of late-night noshers and the after-theater crowd) is a creative balance of crisp crust, mozzarella, pleasantly bitter arugula, salty prosciutto and a tangy lemon-oil dressing. There is always a pasta of the day; Sotto Sopra is known for its inventive homemade ones. This day it was a magnificent squid ink ravioli filled with escargots and Brie. There was a not-so-magnificent risotto of the day: the risotto itself couldn't be faulted except that it was badly over-salted, as were the rib lamb chops that topped it. Apart from the salt, the two-ingredient plate had a sort of stripped-down monotony that didn't work for me.
What did work was the sea bass, steamed in parchment to a gentle moistness with tender little clams in their shells, asparagus, and blood orange to add a citrusy undertone. Tuna seared like a fine steak and topped with a garlicky butter was equally fine in its quiet way, but almost overshadowed by the superb roasted vegetables that came with it.
In the style of the times, many of the appetizers are really small meals in themselves. One of the best of these is the octopus salad, the small cylinders of tender-chewy octopus tossed with potato cubes and arugula and flavored with an invigorating dressing, capers and red onion. Prosciutto draped over a "basket" made of parmesan cheese decorated with fresh mozzarella would easily feed two as a first course. Such food deserves excellent bread, and Sotto Sopra delivers with soft, fresh slices; crisp, salty breadsticks; and a fruity olive oil to dip them in. Wine, of course, is practically a necessity -- Sotto Sopra's list is a nicely balanced affair of Italian and American bottles.
Desserts include a cheesecake with three sauces, profiteroles and a molten-centered chocolate cake. That last is the most successful, mostly because it has a cappuccino mousse as its partner rather than one of the kitchen's barely sweet sauces. But I recommend sharing the plate of biscotti and buttery cookies, some filled with almond paste or chocolate.
Sotto Sopra makes the most of its grand Mount Vernon architecture, from the cracked-tile floor to the lofty ceiling. Tall mirrors and murals of cafe scenes are illuminated by candlelight, and the elegant but casual setting is marred only by the TV set at the bar (showing a golf tournament the night we were there).
Our waiter was knowledgeable and friendly, but overworked, so our meal wasn't as well paced as it should have been. Maybe someone hadn't shown up that night. Or maybe I was too conscious of the cost of dinner. At most restaurants this expensive, you get smooth service as well as fine food. Sotto Sopra has more of the feel of a friendly neighborhood place, at least as far as the service is concerned.
Service: ** 1/2
Where: 405 N.Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$12; main courses, $16-$32
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *