There are restaurants one chooses when one wants to impress. You know the kind: mood lighting, upholstered banquettes, abstract art on the walls. Where waiters with hushed voices offer patrons little perfectly architectural sculptures of molecular gastronomy and who is dining next to you is as important as what is on the plate.
Sotto Mare is not that kind of restaurant. Decidedly down home, Sotto Mare is where one goes when one wants a meal, not a gastronomic experience. Located in the North Beach neighborhood, it eschews the glamour in favor of kitschy décor, no nonsense servers and fresh fish served simply and satisfyingly.
We’re greeted at the door by owner Gigi Fiorucci as if we were old friends. This is clearly the kind of place that engenders regulars. After identifying ourselves as first time diners, Fiorucci tells us with a twinkle in his eye that we will find “no steak and no fries” on his menu. Assuring him that we’re here for fish, he leads us to seats at the bar which runs the length of the restaurant and gives us a view of kitchen. I ask Fiorucci what he recommends, and he shakes his head at the naivety of my question. “It’s all good. I don’t make bad food.” Silly me.
The menu offers relatively few choices: there are oysters, crab, clams and shrimp in the appetizer section, in all the traditional styles: on the half shell, steamed, cocktails and Louis salads. Entrees are fresh caught fish and shellfish or what is dubbed “the Best Damn Crab Cioppino,” plus pasta and risotto. That’s it. That’s either a sign of a limited chef or a chef with the confidence to offer few things very well. Based on how crowded the restaurant is, I’m betting on the latter. An additional laminated sheet is given to us with our menus; initially, I assume it’s a wine/beer list. Instead, it’s a note from Fiorucci telling his patrons that after four decades in the restaurant business, plus personal health battles with diabetes and cholesterol, that he cannot in good conscience offer desserts any longer, but suggests nearby North Beach cafes where one may enjoy an espresso and an Italian pastry. Personally, I’m fine with this restriction, as I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I focus my energy on the dinner portion.
Immediately, my eye goes to the cioppino (left). This is a San Francisco mainstay, and the ultimate in comfort food on a foggy winter evening. But Fiorucci passes by our stools again with a wire basket of sliced French bread and whispers in my ear that sand dabs are the fresh fish of the evening. The decision is made. My husband shares my love for sand dabs, so now it’s a question of appetizers. The table behind us is served clam steamers and the heavenly, garlicky waft of the plate as it passes us seals the deal. We tell our server–who had been frustratingly elusive when we first sat down–that we were on a tight schedule, because we have tickets to a show, and she assures us we’ll be able to be out the door on time. She slides our order on a ticket down a zip line to the line cooks and efficiently grabs a tureen of cioppino waiting for her to serve to another table. I can’t help but look; the cioppino looks amazing. Big legs of crab and mussels fight for dominance with shrimp and clams in a tomato-based sauce. The tureen is big enough for two people to share and I begin to worry that I’ve made the wrong dinner choice because it looks like something that will warm and comfort us on this chilly January night.
Perhaps because we gave our server that warning, it is only two minutes after our clam steamers are set down that our sand dabs are served. Since the steamers are still pretty hot, I turn toward the sand dabs first. Lightly grilled, there are no less than six filets on the plate. I take a bite and they’re perfectly cooked; light, flaky bits of almost sweet flesh. But the filets are under-seasoned as well; the lack of salt perhaps another nod to Fiorucci’s focus on serving healthier options. Luckily, there are a plethora of seasoning options—not just your basic salt and pepper, but Tabasco, hot pepper sauce and malt vinegar—in a tray on the counter next to the paper towel roll dispenser. The sand dabs are served with a steamed bunch of brussel sprouts and colorful carrots, purple, yellow and orange. My husband comes up with the brilliant idea of spooning some of the clam broth on the filets, and voila! all that briny, garlicky goodness perfectly enhances the sand dabs. The clam steamers are much more immediately successful. The broth is so good that it seems sinful to waste. My husband playfully bats away the busser as he sops up every last bit with the French bread. A simple chilled glass of the oaky, buttery, house Chardonnay (Fiorucci’s own note on corkage: “What about it?”) perfectly pairs the clams and despite the astonishing size of both appetizer and entrée, I’m pleasantly full and ready to brave the misty North Beach streets.
Mindful of our time constraints, the server gets our check to us and we are out the door exactly on time. As we leave, Fiorucci exhorts us to return for the cioppino. Next time we’re in North Beach, I plan on doing just that.
Pictures via Yelp.