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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Old School Italian Seafood and Hospitality at Sotto Mare

Posted By on Tue, Jul 29, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Benita's baccala at Sotto Mare in North Beach. - FERRON SALNIKER
  • Ferron Salniker
  • Benita's baccala at Sotto Mare in North Beach.

Sotto Mare
 feels like it’s been around for a lot longer than seven years. The North Beach seafood eatery is covered wall-to-wall in what seems a lifetime of family photos, large fish replicas, and wooden ship models. The granite bar stretches to the end of the narrow restaurant, and from behind it waitresses clip orders to a metal clothesline, flinging them down to the kitchen so that they knock against the stove hood when they arrive. There’s an antique cash register, a big American flag catching the sun in the window, and rolls of paper towels on the bar. There’s an old-school Italian-American spirit about the place, where waitresses are fast-paced, but tourists are treated kindly and regulars are given kisses and asked how dad is doing. 

Sotto Mare claims to make the best cioppino in San Francisco, and tourists are easily recognizable by their white paper bibs and shiny silver bowl. The menu is straight up: oysters, chowder, seafood-laden pastas, louis salads, and simply prepared fish with daily specials. I want to eat like a regular, so I follow a fellow lunch diner’s lead and get the baccala and the grilled sand dabs. Plus, I really didn’t want to wear a bib.

The baccala, called Benita’s baccala in honor of the owner’s mother, was delightful. Dried salt cod is cooked in a sweet and smoky tomato sauce with small hunks of potatoes and capers. Spread it on the slices of baguette from your plastic bread basket or dive in with a fork. I’d have it for dinner just on its own. The sand dabs were almost exactly as I pictured, lightly breaded and grilled, with overcooked broccolini on the side and a definite need for the lemon wedges and a few shakes of salt. Portions are rewarding and easily shareable. Next time I’ll go for the linguine, it came out piled with clams and I could smell it from down the bar. Fresh fish is sold retail here too.

click to enlarge Inside at Sotto Mare - FERRON SALNIKER
  • Ferron Salniker
  • Inside at Sotto Mare
This is the 13th restaurant from owner Gigi Fiorucci, which explains the serious collection of knick knacks on the walls. Originally from Marche, Fiorucci came to the U.S. as a kid and is well known in the neighborhood for owning and cooking in several classic Italian restaurants like the Montclair and Caesar's Italian Restaurant (now closed). His sister-in-law, who was working the floor, said this place will be his last. “Too much work,” she says with a smile and fills a $6 glass of house wine to the brim.

Insiders tip: Go for lunch if you can, the dinner wait on weekends can be over an hour.

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