In October 2011, when Boca Restaurant Group announced they were bringing their flagship, Boca, downtown to join their highly successful Nada, I cheered. I wrote a column talking about how, while it’s probably a challenge for anyone under 40 to remember when The Maisonette was the pinnacle of Cincinnati dining, everyone should appreciate the significance of 114 E. Sixth St. and the Mobil five-star restaurant’s heritage. After all, many of our great local chefs — Jean Robert de Cavel, Sean Kagy, David Cook and Jeremy Lieb — earned their chops there. So, le roi est mort! Vive le roi, right?
Now, less than two years after that column ran, Boca is almost ready to open, with the additional good news that they are opening a trattoria in the lower level of the building, the space that housed La Normandie. Just as La Normandie was more casual than its upstairs neighbor, calling itself a “tavern and chop house,” Sotto will be more approachable, both in atmosphere and price, than Boca.
I spoke with David Falk, owner and head chef of the Boca group, to get the scoop.
“We love Boca,” Falk explains. “But our friends couldn’t eat there. They couldn’t afford it. Sotto is the place we’ve created for our friends.”
When I saw Sotto, construction was still underway. There will be multiple dining rooms, some private and some not. Much of the kitchen will be open to view, including the custom-made wood-fire grill in front. In the back hallway, you’ll be able to see into the fresh pasta room. There’s a rustic feel to the finishes. Much of the wood decor is salvaged barn siding, but some of the beams were repurposed from the Maisonette space.
There are a surprising number of exposed pipes, but, hey, it’s a basement, so that’s authentic.
But you can’t eat the scenery, so Sotto didn’t get too interesting for me until we met culinary director Jeremy Lieb in the kitchen, and he gave me a little more info on the food. He started with the magic words “Blue Oven” and told me that Sotto is not only sourcing their bread from the Fromeyers, but also leasing six acres of their land along the Little Miami, where they’ll be growing their own herbs and vegetables, including San Marzano tomatoes and five or six strains of heritage beans.
For the grill, Sotto will be sourcing beef from Creekstone Farms, the Black Angus operations overseen by Dr. Temple Grandin, a specialist in humane treatment of animals. The grill is specially designed for the dish that Falk hopes to spotlight as Sotto’s signature: Bistecca alla Fiorentina (“beefsteak Florentine,” a Tuscan-style porterhouse). Like in Italy, the porterhouse is ordered by the kilo. The grill has two sides, and the grates can be lowered separately. A steak can be seared quickly on the lower side, and then moved to the raised side where the thickest cuts can roast slowly.
The steak will be the most expensive dish on Sotto’s menu — probably the only expensive dish. Pastas will be priced at around $12, and two-thirds of the wine list will be priced at $3 to $4 a glass. Even though Falk had directed his staff to push the prices as low as they possibly could, when he saw the menu proof, he thought they were typos. He had to be convinced that they could still use the best ingredients, the way they always have.
“We’re not changing anything about the way we cook,” Falk reassures me. “But this food will taste and feel like the greatest trattorias in the world. We’re creating food that touches your soul. It’s food that tells you why Italy is so loved.”
Falk described prosciutto from West Virginia that will “melt your mind,” and bruschetta grilled over the wood fire, topped with chicken liver mousse studded with pistachios. Breaded pork loin scaloppini with grilled lemon, seared cod with braised fennel — the simplicity of the food is also its luxury, because it’s not trying to be anything else.
Danny Combs will be at the helm in Sotto’s kitchen. Falk says he’s never met a guy who has picked up the art of cooking pasta as fast and proficiently as Combs. “He just gets it,” Falk says.
Falk’s not a dessert guy, so he insisted that, “If we’re going to have a pastry chef, they have to be a badass.” When Jeremy Lieb brought Amy Guterba from Youngstown to audition for the role, Falk took one bite of her panna cotta and said, “Hire her.” The day that the gelato machine arrived at Sotto was, Falk now says, “like Christmas.”
With the team in place and the construction winding to a close, Sotto will be ready to open its doors in the next few weeks. Buono appetito!
Go: 114 E. Sixth St., Downtown
Hours: Opening soon