9575 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90035 (map); 310-277-0210; sottorestaurant.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Pizza Oven: Stefano Ferrara wood
The Skinny: Love it or hate it Neapolitan with big, bold flavors.
Price: Margherita, $14; Guanciale, $17; Calzone, $16
I don't want to alarm anybody but there's a bit of a Neapolitan backlash going on out there. I guess it's to be expected. Neapolitan is becoming nearly ubiquitous, yet it's an incredibly difficult style to master, meaning there's a lot of bland $15 pies out there. And even when it is done right, there isn't a ton of variety and some pizza nerds can get bored (though not myself). What to do then, if you still have a deep and abiding love for the puffy crust? If you're Sotto, you push the Neapolitan envelope and go for bigger, more intense flavors.
Steve Samson and Zach Pollack are the chefs—not pizzaioli—behind Sotto, a Southern Italian restaurant on the edge of West LA, that's on the short list of restaurants serving great pizza (A16, Flour + Water, and...let me know who else). Steve and Zach collaborate on the menu, but Zach took the lead developing the dough.
Sotto is undoubtedly Neapolitan, but they've turned some of the more unique characteristics of the pizza up to eleven. As you can see, the leopard spots are completely out of control. One look at all that black and assume it has to be at least a little dry...and then you take a bite and the crust is moist and supple, much more so than in most Neapolitan pies. The slightly sweet, yeasty flavors in the crumb also get ratcheted way up, sometimes to the point where it borders on sour, but you need that boldness to offset the clusterbombs of bitter char that pockmark the exterior. It's a very delicate, sometimes combustible balance, but it's one they've figured out for the most part. The one minor gripe I have is with that big, puffy cornicione. It's a hint less crisp than other Neapolitan pies, but it's a trade-off I'll take for the flavor complexity you gain (though it must be noted that Zach believes I'm full of it with regards to the rigidity of his pizza).
Of the six pizzas on the menu, half are classics (Margherita, Marinara, Salciccia) and half are originals, and all the ingredients are topnotch. The pork—and there's a lot of pork at Sotto—is butchered in-house, and the cheese comes in fresh every day from rising stars Gioia (who are becoming my favorite cheese makers not working for Chris Bianco).
Sotto's version of the Margherita is my favorite in the city. It's wet, perfectly balanced, and anything but bland; even the basil, hidden below the ingredients before the cook, makes an impression. Sticking with straight San Marzanos for the sauce probably would have been tricky given the makeup of the dough, so the red stuff gets a nice boost of garlic. It's a good reminder that the purist route isn't always the right one. The only thing that could perhaps put the Margherita over the top is the fuller flavor of bufala mozzarella*.
Of the originals, the Guanciale is the big star. Strips of smoky pork cheek lay under an epic sheet of ricotta that's topped with scallions and fennel pollen, and every bite is a savory overload. It seems almost too rich after one bite, but then you look down again the whole pie is gone. The other originals are what you'd consider "chef's pizzas," partly because they're fairly sophisticated combinations and partly because you can't make substitutions. The spicy, tangy Calabrese (tomato sauce, broccoli di ciccio, olives, Calabrian peppers) and the salty Estiva (olive pesto, sungold tomatoes, mozzarella, arugula) both show off the regional flavors pretty well, but I favor the Guanciale and the classics.
The wildcard is the Homage to Caiazzo, a delicious calzone that Zach nicked from—you guessed it—Caiazzo, Italy. The original has escarole, capers, and Gaeta olives, but the chefs added some creamy burrata to make it more "palatable" for Americans, and I'd like to personally thank them for it. At some point, the boundaries between cheese and dough disappear, and you're left with this salty, wet glob of heaven.
I'm fascinated by anyone's journey to great pizza, and Zach has a pretty great one. After falling in love with Neapolitan pizza on an extended stay in Italy (and deepening that affair on a second trip with his brother-in-law, Jon Darsky, of Del Poppolo fame), Zach set out to meld his two favorite pizzas from Naples: the flat, supple, char-heavy pie at world famous Da Michele, and the puffier, more familiar variant at Pizzeria di Napoli. After he separated his shoulder while working as a cook, he cobbled together a recipe off the internet (with the help of Jeff Varasano's famous site, which everyone who wants to learn to make pizza eventually visits), and spent months experimenting with the self-cleaning cycle on his mother's oven.
Eventually he came up with something resembling the well-received pizza he and Steve served when they opened Pizzeria Ortica (reviewed here and here) in Orange County, but cooking in a wood-fired oven changed everything, and they continued to re-work the dough throughout their stay. When they left Ortica to open Sotto, the duo traded yeast and a 700 degree Mugnaini oven for a biga starter Zach grew himself and an 8-ton monster hand-built by Stefano Ferrara. As you've heard, the Ferrara ovens burn at god knows how many degrees, but still manage to distribute the heat evenly. Zach said it was like going from a "Mercedes" (Steve jokes: "pick-up truck") to a "Bugatti." The upgrade gave them the heat they needed to take their pizza up to its current level.
As much as I like the pizza, there's a bit of a learning curve to it. Not every friend I've brought in has instantly fallen in love. If regular pizza is soda and Neapolitan pizza is beer, Sotto is probably Guiness—a step-up in flavor and complexity that's not for everyone, at least initially. With that said, Zach and Steve readily admit they're shooting for the 80/20 ratio, as in they'd rather 80 percent of people flip for the pizza and 20 percent hate it rather than 100 percent merely like it. I think that's a very wise decision, but then again, I'm one of the 80 percenters who flip. Of course, the odds are that you'll be one, too.
* Zach promised to put bufala mozzarella back on the menu if enough people walk up to the open kitchen and request it from him. If you are an inherently good person who cares for the mental well-being of the strangers searching out good pizza for you, you will do this, and we will ride off into bufala Valhalla together.