Any number of restaurants have come and gone in the Mount Vernon neighborhood since 1996, but Sotto Sopra has held on the whole time. No wonder.
For a start, the place just looks so darn good — a mix of chic and charm, upscale and relaxed. The huge, playful mural depicting sophisticates wining and dining puts you immediately in the mood to do the same, regardless of where you register on the sophisticate scale.
There’s something comfortable about the room even when it’s so jammed that only one person at a time can safely navigate the aisles. You’ll want to yield right of way to the attentive servers; ours provided stellar, personable assistance all night.
And add high marks for the subdued lighting, which makes everyone look a whole lot better (and younger — Sotto Sopra deserves an extra star for providing that benevolence alone).
If the darkness forces some patrons to reach for the flashlight app on their cell phones to read the menu, the resulting glow at the tables simply complements the candles already exuding elegant atmosphere.
But we can’t dine on ambience alone, can we?
Although it is possible to encounter disappointments with the food, rewards always seem just around the next bite. And all the while, you sense a kitchen working hard and thoughtfully. You’ll likely walk out focused on the peaks.
On the night we visited, the highs started with the warm octopus salad. (OK, the highs actually started with the cocktails, including a nimble little number dubbed the Sinner, which combined rye, vermouth, Italian liqueur and bitters to redemptive effect. Later on, we found similar rewards from the agreeable wine list. But back to the salad.)
The tender, expertly cooked octopus found supportive mates in the tangy arugula, cherry tomatoes and lemon vinaigrette that accompanied it. The addition of fennel would have been even more beneficial had it been cut thinner.
Another spot-on appetizer was the beet caprese, a portion of fine red and yellow beets paired with delectably creamy buffalo mozzarella, finished with basil and olive oil. Call it refined simplicity.
As for a dish of soft polenta with sauteed shrimp, well, the latter certainly were tasty. But the poor creatures were drowned in a thick, soupy, unappealing mass of polenta.
The house-made pasta at Sotto Sopra invariably gives pleasure, as was the case with the fettuccine alla bolognese. The pasta was just a few seconds past al dente but still lovely; the meat sauce was subtly spiced.
A beautifully cooked, pan-seared bronzino filet created crispy skin without leaving the fish overdone and was subtly enhanced by a basil sauce. Roasted vegetables completed the dish effectively.
The veal saltimbocca went into the disappointment category. Some of veal was tough, some mushy, though the layer of sage, prosciutto and provolone clicked. Excellent mashed potatoes and sauteed broccolini gave the dish a lift.
Sotto Sopra does not necessarily maintain its Italian identity at every turn. On the dessert menu, for example, you can find apple strudel. Go figure. More to the point, go figure how it ended up tasting like a toaster-ready product from the grocery store — dense, characterless, hardly Viennese.
We pushed that away and savored the finely textured semolina cake, which was a tad too heavy on the almond flavoring for the most persnickety member of our dining party but tasted just right to me.
Molten chocolate cake, as ubiquitous a dessert as they come, was anything but humdrum. A model of its type, it kept the sweetness perfectly at bay — and created another of those memorable peaks that keep Sotto Sopra shining.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 405 N. Charles St.
Contact: 410-625-0534, sottosoprainc.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $6 to $17; entrees $22 to $35.
Noise/TVs: Not annoyingly loud, even when full; one TV above the bar area.
Service: Polished and personable.
Parking: Valet, street
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]