Richard Foss

Subtle, Simple, Serene [restaurant review]

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Chef Lucca Manderino of Sosta. Photo by JP Cordero (Civic Couch)

Centuries ago, when the rest of Italy was a chaos of feuding dukes and statelets, Venice was called La Serenissima, the serene republic. The only Venetian-style restaurant in the South Bay is a quiet echo of that city, a place with candlelight, soft music, and a muted color scheme. Sosta means “rest” or “pause” in Italian, and is the third restaurant with some variation of that name to be operated by chef Lucca Manderino. The first did well until the building was redeveloped, the second operated briefly in an inconvenient space, and this one opened in October on upper Pier in Hermosa. The old building shows signs of its age, which is appropriate because Venice does too – it’s hard to keep things looking pristine after the first millennium.

The menu is short and slanted toward seafood, no great surprise given the maritime history of Venice. On two visits our servers were very knowledgeable about the cuisine and let us know that the portions here are authentically Italian, which means small compared to the vast platters you get in New York-style places. We expected this but appreciated being told, since it might be an unwelcome surprise to those who expected otherwise.

Bread and butter arrived along with mineral water while we studied the wine list. It’s entirely Italian, with 17 wines available by the glass at prices from $12 to $18 and bottles from $38 to over $300. They’re liberal about offering tastings so you’re likely to find something you like, which is good because they don’t allow you to bring your own. Similarly, regular water isn’t offered, and mineral water is six bucks a bottle. (Our server said this was because the filtration system wasn’t installed, but there’s no financial incentive to hurry that job.)

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We tried four appetizers: Sicilian anchovies with buffalo mozzarella cheese, codfish with black polenta, shiitake mushrooms fried with truffle oil, and a special of tripe in tomato sauce. I didn’t actually order the tripe, but the owner brought me some after I said that I eat everything. I’m not a big fan of tripe, but I do have to admit that this was the best I’ve ever had. It had been soaked in milk to reduce the funkiness to a whisper, and the fruity tomato herb sauce actually made it enjoyable. The salted codfish over black polenta might also fit some people’s Fear Factor list. People began salting cod to preserve it, and when fully dried it’s hard as a board and about as tasty. Soak it in water to remove most of the salt and it transforms into something intensely flavorful just begging to be poached with some garlic and lemon and then whipped into a paste along with olive oil. Put that on top of black polenta — made with buckwheat rather than corn, so nutty and aromatic in a very different way — and you have a small package of rich flavor. Polenta and salt cod were once the food of the poor in Venice, but they found ways of making it a feast.

The anchovies with buffalo mozzarella don’t sound like much – open a can of anchovies and serve with cheese, and you can buy both of those at the store cheap, right? Nope. Fresh mozzarella made in Italy from water buffalo milk is hard to find in the USA and has a distinctly different texture from cow mozzarella. As for the anchovies, they’re salty and oily like all anchovies, but lighter and meatier. As with the codfish, there was a bit more coarsely ground pepper than we would have liked, and we will ask them to cut back on any future visit.

By comparison to the other starters, the mushrooms were mainstream, but all the more satisfying for that. There was just a hint of truffle muskiness added to the gently seasoned shiitakes, and they reset the palate between bites of the more assertively flavored seafood.

An order of pasta nero capesante, squid ink pasta with scallops. Photo by JP Cordero (Civic Couch)

We tried five mains: gnocchi with gorgonzola, spaghetti with anchovies, pappardelle pasta with porcini mushrooms, a seared ribeye, and rack of lamb. As I mentioned before, the portions are on the small side, and what is listed on the menu is generally what you get. That $34 rack of lamb is one rack with six bones, and that’s the only thing on the plate. It’s New Zealand rather than the more expensive Colorado or Texas, good but not premium. It was simply seasoned, expertly cooked, and very good, but there wasn’t a lot of bang for the buck. I’d rate the seared ribeye higher because there was a little arugula and cooked chard on the plate, providing some variety of flavor. I grow chard and cook it often so am hard to please, but this was well made and highly appreciated. It was an excellent steak but next time I’d order other things on the menu that are very rare in the South Bay.

The bigoli with anchovy and onion sauce, for example. Bigoli is a spaghetti variant that is often made with buckwheat flour and duck eggs, and though I didn’t ask whether they do that here it had the springiness of a fresh egg pasta. The fish and onion sauce is a hearty pairing with it, the kind of thing I think of as a winter dish even though Italians eat it year-round. It’s salty and peppery and a little bit pungent and very, very good.

More standard dishes turned out well too. The gnocchi are as light and fluffy as any chef could dream of making, and the baby arugula atop the subtle gorgonzola sauce is more than just a garnish. The gnocchi too were topped with coarse pepper, and how much I wish that we had just been given a grinder and a recommendation instead. There were six gnocchi on the plate, but we used most of our bread to mop up the sauce so we were satisfied. For some reason the pappardelle with porcini escaped the peppermill, and gave us a baseline for the other items. If you like mushrooms in a velvety cream sauce with freshly made pasta this is a solid bet.

The wines do indeed complement the food, and the servers know which to recommend. The standouts were a Collio Friulano with the anchovy items and a Sant’ Elena Cabernet Franc with the steak, but there really is enough variety in this list to please any wine lover.

We missed our chance to finish with cannoli because they only occasionally make it, so we shared a tiramisu. Though people think of this as a traditional item, it was invented near Venice in the 1960s, and was made with biscuits soaked in wine, topped with a mascarpone cheese sauce and sprinkled with chocolate and powdered espresso. Tiramisu is made in many ways, including as a cake and frozen dessert, and often is much sweeter and more chocolatey than the original. As might be expected they make the classic here, and they do it well.

As you can tell if you’ve read this far, I respect the food and the service but find the price point to be high. Dinner for two with four glasses of wine and one shared dessert ran over $180, and on the second visit, one appetizer, two entrees, and two glasses of wine were $124. For those who are looking for a special occasion spectacular with a romantic atmosphere, this may be your dream spot, but it’s not for everyday. Lucca mentioned that he plans to add some cicchetti, the Venetian tapas that are served in wine bars, and I hope he considers pricing them so that more people will come in and taste his superb skills.

Sosta is at 439 Pier Ave. in Hermosa. Open 6 p.m. – 11 p.m. Tu-Sa, closed Su-Mo. Street parking, wheelchair access OK but slope in interior, wine served. Noise level very low. For reservations call 424-391-5959, menu at sostacucina.com. ER

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