Chef Steve Samson looks like the boy next door, except instead of playing video games growing up, he was indulging in grandma and grandpa's exquisite Italian cooking outside of Florence. We should be grateful for that and for how painful Columbia's Pre-Med program must have been for him, because after finishing it, Steve enrolled in Culinary School. He went on to cook all over Italy and got in with the Valentino world back in the US, opening and cooking in several of their restaurants, including serving as executive chef for Valentino Santa Monica.
Samson opened Sotto on Pico with Zach Pollack in early 2011, and decided to keep the focus on Southern Italy, because that's how much he loves Neopolitan pizza. In fact, Steve had 15,000 pounds of brick, sand and materials imported from Naples, along with a 3rd generation pizza oven producer, in order to make the most authentic Neopolitan pizza. I admire the dedication. Now let's eat some pizza.
Once again I feel the need to state that I was with a large group of people so you don't see all this food and put me back on a carb free diet. The many courses were kicked off by what looked like garlic bread, but that's not particularly Southern so after biting in (and looking at the menu), we realized this was chickpea panelle. The outside was warm and crisp, and the inside was soft and creamy. A delicious starter.
Next was a rustic mix of antipasto with the requisite burrata, salty ham and marinated olives of different sizes and colors, resting in a chili-orange vinaigrette.
Grilled little gems lettuce arrived next with breadcrumbs and a light anchovy, garlic dressing. The blistering of the greens really brought out a smoky flavor that turned the salad into a savory dish.
Chef Steve treated us to a bonus course of pork meatballs that were juicy and flavorful on a bed of lightly dressed greens. Quite the sleeper hit.
The pasta round came with two very different tastes: Casarecce - braised lamb ragu, egg, and pecorino (because there's no parmesean in the south!), and Rigatoni with a chicken liver ragu and maitake mushrooms that blew my mind. It almost looked like gravy beneath the pasta, but it was the juices of the long slow cooking that came together in an impactful sauce that has me rethinking liver.
It was then time to put the infamous pizza oven to work. The Guanciale came out first with house cured pork cheek, ricotta, scallions and fennel pollen. I was so amped up and excited to try the pizza, but found myself slightly disappointed in the flavor combination. I feel like it needed a spike in one direction or another - spice, sweet, something.
Then the Marghertia arrived, which I normally yawn at, but perhaps after my disappointment with the first, I was happy to see the classic sauce and fresh basil come together so well. The crust on both were superb. Slightly chewy and the perfect ratio of ingredients to dough.
It was hard to believe that there was still an entree of brick pressed halved chicken to be served. It was well cooked with crisp kale and hen of the woods and farro underneath like a creamy risotto. Delicious, but I was too full to enjoy it all.
There's always room for dessert, and we received a homemade cannoli filled with ricotta and a slightly sweet orange marmalade and pistachio. A nice note to end on.
I would return for more liver pasta and meatballs, and to continue eating my way through Southern Italy!