Sotto Sopra

Riccardo Bosio, the owner and now chef at Sotto Sopra, makes Crescenza Agnolotti. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 16, 2010)

Riccardo Bosio opened Sotto Sopra in 1996, taking over the downtown space that had been ravishingly renovated for a short-lived beauty named the Vanguard Cafe. The space is still a dream, and you can see why those opera evenings Sotto Sopra produces have become so successful. With its crimson curtains, vibrant murals and ornate furnishings, its theatricality is enveloping. But it's very warm and comfortable here; keen attention to lighting and music has much to do with that.

Over the years, Bosio brought in to run his kitchen a series of chefs, some of them from his native Milan, and usually for only a year at a stretch. A double exception was Bill Crouse, who stayed for three years and folded a little Maryland flavor into the Northern Italian menu. Crouse's departure a few months ago set the stage for the entrance of a new chef. And in a dramatic turn, it was Bosio himself.

Bosio is back behind the line, and the menu is once again entirely his, and as never before entirely Northern Italian. That is to say, it's not Italian-American, or, as you may be told at tableside, there are not meatballs on the menu. There are no apologies about the pro-Milan sentiments here, and neither are diners encouraged to create their own meal, add shrimp or beef to a salad, or ask for their dressing on the side.

That's fine as long as the food works, and the great majority of the time it does. Appetizers are consistently effective, the big entrees a little less so. The pastas here, made on premises, are a triumph. Bosio's new menu is now presented on a large single sheet, in that typeface that's come to suggest seasonal and artisanal, complete with the customary groupings of handcrafted cocktails and salumi. There are a few things, a preparation of agnolotti, the Piedmontese version of ravioli, and a simple appetizer of polenta and caper aioli, that made us giddy.

Those agnolotti, stuffed with veal and smoked bacon, accompanied by gorgeous sauteed spinach and set into orbit by a darkly intense veal jus, could be thrown at me from an ogre, and I'd still love them. Likewise a stellar dish of mint fettuccine, tossed with lamb ragout, whipped sour cream, and mint gremolata; and, now auditioning on the specials list, a fantastically satisfying Bolognese sauce that Bosio serves on garganelli pasta, a rustic cousin of penne.

Our favorites among the appetizers are two polenta dishes — the simple fried version, which gets sprinkled with truffled sea salt and lavished with a sunny caper aioli; and the elaborate version, La Polenta di Riccardo, which gets involved with shaved fennel, prosciutto di Parma, shaved Parmigiano, and a perfectly poached egg. Magnificent Portuguese sardines are on the menu now, and they're served perfectly: fried, with a sprinkling of capers, a soupcon of aioli. We also enjoyed very much a dashing halibut ceviche, heated up with a dose of jalapeno; a lovely serving of sliced veal, served with a full-bodied tuna-anchovy sauce; a dandy, Dijon-dressed frisee salad with bits of prosciutto and white anchovy; and a delectable warm octopus salad, with capers, cherry tomatoes and a bright lemon dressing.

The big entrees are less persuasive. A signature entree, a pounded veal chop breaded with foccaccia and then piled high with arugula and fennel, is the typical Milanese preparation. It makes more sense, and begins to give more pleasure, the more patiently you work the ingredients together into each bite. No one stuck up for a poor halibut, topped, to little effect, with almonds and capers. The staff prefers the whole bronzini.

For this review I dined here twice, which is not always the case, but I left the first time feeling so unhappy and wasn't sure why. I found myself fixating on the fact that that Sotto Sopra doesn't staff a hostess or bartender, at least not on a midweek evening, which, considering the menu prices, seems galling. Guests still are greeted, but the untended bar means a server is off muddling cocktails instead of attending to you. It's also a weird waste of a lovely bar.

The second time, I knew. The service here, like the atmosphere in general, is full of extraordinary self-regard. This can actually be an attractive, almost aphrodisiacal quality, but it can be very off-putting when it looks like pomposity. I think the more you get to know Sotta Sopra, the more you'd come to share in this love fest. We were already starting to warm up on the second visit, when we got some tableside attention from Bosio and more attention from our server. Just know that a first-timer can be made to feel like a rube.

I admit that I had to ask my friends to remind me about our first visit's dessert course. One responded that there was "a molten chocolate thing with raspberry sorbet." He couldn't really remember, either. This was the same friend who decided he would absolutely return to Sotto Sopra, which should tell you something. So much of the food is just that good.

Sotto Sopra

Where: 405 N. Charles St.

Contact: 410-625-0534

Hours: Open for lunch Monday-Saturday and open for dinner daily

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Oustanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Good: ✭]