Downtown’s best downstairs restaurant is now open for lunch. If you owe yourself — or a friend — a midday indulgence, well, Sotto is the place.
My dining partner and I weren’t sure how Sotto’s atmosphere would adapt from dinner to daytime — the windowless space is intimate and romantic, words that most of us don’t associate with noon. Well, maybe you do, and as the kids say, you go. Thousands of cubicle dwellers envy your spark as they sit, desk bound, gnawing on some grown-up variation of Lunchables. But don’t surrender your soul yet! Sotto has set up its lunch service so you can make it in and out promptly, or take your time and savor the experience.
If you come in Sotto’s door from the blazing midday sun, it might take a minute to adjust to the low light. That’s fine, but you’re at the top of a staircase, so take your time.
We were seated right away at a curved booth in the bar. Our server was brilliant throughout the meal. He asked us if we had to be back at the office quickly, and when we assured him that we were enjoying the last days of summer vacation and could take our time, he immediately adapted to that pace. Then he offered us sparkling water at no charge. Free bubbles!
The noonday soundtrack ranged from Dirty Dancing to Happy Days, and finally to Quentin Tarantino circa Jackie Brown. All good choices, made better because the volume was set low enough that conversation was easy.
We were so happy at that point that we decided to have cocktails, and Sotto’s lunch menu offered several that sounded perfect. The Apiary ($10) with gin and Cardamaro (an Italian digestif) sweetened with thyme-honey and garnished with a fragrant thyme sprig was my first choice, but I swapped with my friend after I tasted her Elixir of Life ($12), a prosecco cocktail with blackberry and sage. Perfection.
I love my vegetarian friend. So after stealing her cocktail, instead of ordering the chicken liver mousse ($7) that was calling my name rather insistently, we went with the goat cheese bruschetta ($8). It was, in fact, delicious. Honey and hazelnuts were mixed in the cheese, and I was worried that it might be cloying. But it managed to be rich without too much sweetness; silky, with the right texture for spreading, and just the right portion size for sharing. All of the starters — including the prosciutto tasting ($11/$16) I’m going to try next — are designed to multitask as quick, light lunches for folks on a strict 40-minute break from the daily grind.
Sotto’s motto, “Cento percento Italiano,” makes pasta almost mandatory. My friend has enjoyed their Cacio e Pepe on the dinner menu and decided to go with the new lunch version ($13), served on fresh gnocchi with blanched asparagus. We both loved this dish. Undeniably rich, it was still light enough that it wouldn’t cause an afternoon cubicle coma.
On our server’s recommendation, I decided to try the Bavette con Bottarga ($13), which was new to me. Bavette is ribbon pasta like tagliatelle, sauced with olive oil and crushed roasted tomatoes and a little peperoncino, with bottarga — a salted, cured fish roe — grated over the top. I’m sure the dish was well prepared, but I don’t eat salty food often, and to me it was painfully salty. The server noticed and whisked it away. The summery panzanella ($13) he brought to replace it was a much better choice for me — lush with ripe heirloom tomatoes, flecks of burrata and ribbons of basil. Neither dish showed up on our bill.
And that is the real reason a David Falk-owned restaurant is an exceptional dining experience. Falk believes in customer satisfaction in a way that exceeds expectations, no questions asked. I interviewed him years ago for a CityBeat profile, and he told me about his philosophy of “BPA” — blowing people away. He’s determined that people will leave his restaurants wowed by what happened there, and our server definitely made our Sotto lunch wonderful.
Every lunchtime diner at Sotto gets a complimentary surprise dessert — a petite ricotta powdered-sugar donut with salted caramel dipping sauce. This little gem is the size of a beignet, but softer and richer; the perfect bite or three to end a lovely meal.
SOTTO is open for lunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. More info: sottocincinnati.com.