There are Italian restaurants in Los Angeles that attract a higher ratio of A-listers, but if you want to eat and drink well in a place that’s relaxed and paparazzi free, Sotto would be my tip. Its location—a basement in Culver City—isn’t the stuff of glamorous Hollywood film-sets, but a meal here merits more than a walk-on part.
Zach Pollack’s food is all about earthy, southern-Italian flavours; the wine list, chosen by consultant Jeremy Parzen and wine captain (who thinks up these titles?) Rory Harrington, follows suit. The focus is on indigenous grapes from Abruzzo, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia and Sicily. If you want to drink Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the default choices of too many American diners, you will be disappointed. But if you’re interested in Greco di Tufo, Nerello Mascalese, Aglianico and Negroamaro—or prepared to give them a try—Harrington is a very enthusiastic advocate of these and other native varieties. He holds regular tutored tastings and wine-maker evenings, too.
Some people use Sotto as a BYO restaurant, although the corkage fee of $25 is waived if you buy a second bottle from the 140-bin list. But the prices are so reasonable, the choices so on-the-money, that you’d be missing the point if you didn’t drink Sotto’s wines. For people who want to experiment, things are made easy: you can pay $60 for five glasses, chosen by Harrington to match your meal, and served with generosity. The menu certainly lends itself to such an approach: dishes that you can share and that work well with the softer, smoother flavours of southern Italian wines.
Our $60 was put to good use. We started with a spicy, refreshing 2010 Struzziero Greco di Tufo white, before moving to three reds of differing concentrations: the spicy, biodynamic 2009 Musto Carmelitano Aglianico del Vulture, the savoury, appealingly mature 1997 Ippolito Cirò Classico Riserva, and then a rich, tannic 2006 Odoardi Savuto from Calabria—the wine Harrington pours for "people who ask for Cabernet Sauvignon".
We finished with a glass of the 2010 Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Muscat, made with the island’s typically raisined grape.
It was a sweet end to an enjoyable meal, made even more so by such a quirky and innovative list. Way out west, the south of Italy has found a corner all of its own.
Around $29pp for two courses without wine; sottorestaurant.com
Where else to go and what to drink
SCARPETTA BEVERLY HILLS
A stylish, hotel-based offshoot of Scott Conant’s celebrated NYC restaurant. Around $52pp for two courses
Best white: 2008 GD Vajra Riesling, Langhe Bianco Such is its rarity, it’s worth drinking this Piedmontese white for its curiosity-value as well as its quality. Dry, minerally and very focused, with just a hint of bottle-aged toastiness, this is still in its infancy. $83
Best red: 2007 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Giacomo Neri’s generic Brunello comes from the cooler, eastern part of this famous Tuscan region. Combines freshness and the ripe-textured red-fruit sweetness that’s so typical of the 2007 vintage. $118
DRAGO CENTRO DOWNTOWN
A buzzy, chic, urban eaterie with a focus on regional Italian cuisine. Five-course tasting menu, $70pp
Best white: 2008 Terlano Nova Domus Produced by the best co-operative in the Alto Adige (and arguably the whole of Italy) this partially oak-fermented blend of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is creamy, peachy, yet incredibly fresh and long-lived. $72
Best red: 2006 Allegrini La Grola One of the Veneto’s great bargains, this single-vineyard, Corvina-based blend is a huge step above most of the local reds. Rich and full-bodied, with subtle oak, notes of spice and black fruits, and impressive intensity and balance. $60