Review: Sotto Sotto

Ricardo Ullio's intimate Inman Park Italian continues to charm

Sotto Sotto was the restaurant that sold me on Atlanta.

It's hard to admit now, but when I first arrived, I wasn't immediately enamored of this great city of ours. I hated the highways, the traffic and the smog. And I didn't understand the restaurant culture. In 2006, there were far fewer chef-driven restaurants here. I ate mainly at huge, impressive and soulless eateries. These places were fun, but they didn't speak to me on a personal level. They didn't say much about their city that was comforting to a newcomer.

And then, a few months in, I made it to Sotto Sotto. As soon as I stepped in through the velvet curtains that surround the modest front door, I felt comforted. In its scale and location, in its look and vibe, and particularly in its serious, amicable service and simple, elegant food, Sotto Sotto felt like a restaurant that could be in New York or Melbourne, Australia — in my biased opinion, two of the greatest cities in the world. If this restaurant exists in Atlanta, I thought, then Atlanta must not be so bad.

Four years later, Sotto Sotto still comforts me, with its unassuming storefront location flanked by high rosemary bushes and its small dining room with paint-chipped walls. But mainly I'm comforted by the fact that Sotto Sotto's food and service are stunningly consistent. There are few places in town where you can show up and relax, knowing your meal is going to be understatedly brilliant. Sotto Sotto is that place.

It begins with wine, and a staff that can chat about it intelligently and breezily, as if discussing the merits of a collection of old friends. Unabashedly Italian and composed with food in mind, it's one of the more delightful lists in the city.

Starters range from ethereal — as with lamb carpaccio, the meat a whisper of brawny depth, topped by the pepper crunch of arugula and the sharp smack of Parmigiano-Reggiano — to downright robust: three large sea scallops rest atop a bright mix of cannellini beans, arugula and tomato, and could easily substitute as an entrée.

Risottos are downright masterful. The frutti di mare version is a jumble of seafood — fat mussels and shrimp, tiny sweet bursts in the form of bay scallops — with just enough flawlessly cooked carnaroli rice (no small feat, mind you) to hold it together and provide a baseline of carbs.

A light, elegant touch in the kitchen allows even the heaviest dishes to seem almost weightless. Ravioli with eggplant and walnuts comes in an acidic tomato sauce, the pasta so delicate, the sauce so vivid, it was easily gobbled up on even a hot August night. Strozzapreti alla Salsiccia or "priest strangler" pasta pairs featherweight handmade pasta with a smattering of sweet sausage, bathed in an almost creamy tomato base. Even a colossal veal chop, the most expensive menu item at $38, manages to avoid the downsides of its own heft. Oak-grilled and slathered in wild mushrooms, the meat and woodsy accompaniment sit in perfect balance, inviting you to eat more than you thought you would when presented with the intimidating portion.

Sotto Sotto's consistency is especially heartening given that owner and chef Riccardo Ullio has had a crazy few years. He opened and closed Cuerno, a Spanish restaurant, Beleza, the Brazilian-themed health food spot that quickly turned into a club scene, and Lupe, an upscale taqueria. With his efforts focused elsewhere, it would have been easy to see Sotto Sotto and sister restaurant Fritti (one of the city's best pizzerias) fall by the wayside.

But that hasn't happened. Ullio credits his staff for that consistency. Chef de cuisine Adam Waller has been with the restaurant for about a year, and some members of the kitchen staff have been with Ullio for more than a decade. Ullio is still ultimately responsible for the menu, he says, but Waller and his staff are the ones executing every night.

Recently, a new co-worker of mine was lured to Atlanta from New York City. When I asked him how he finally came to the decision, he told me it was Sotto Sotto. "I came to Atlanta and thought, 'I'd never live in this city.' Then I ate at Sotto Sotto and said to myself, 'If this restaurant can thrive in this city, then I can live in this city.'"

Last week, as I sat over a bowl of otherworldly panna cotta, its creamy consistency challenged and soothed by a prickle of balsamic reduction, that same emotion rose in me again. Four years into my Atlanta life, Sotto Sotto still makes me proud to live here. Ten years into its Atlanta life, Sotto Sotto continues to make the city that much more enticing.

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