At Sotto Los Angeles, Steve Samson explores the cuisine of Southern Italy
We met Steve Samson on a quiet Wednesday afternoon at his restaurant, Sotto Los Angeles. As the name suggests, the restaurant is “under” or “beneath”, i.e. down a few steps from Pico Boulevard. The cuisine of Sotto is also from “down below”, that is predominantly Southern Italian, ranging from Neapolitan-style pizza to paccheri with pork ragu, rapini, and fennel pollen. We took a seat at one of the rustic wood tables, and asked him a few questions.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef? And how did you end up here at Sotto Los Angeles?
“I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My mom is from Italy, and as a kid I used to spend the summer with my grandparents outside Bologna. That’s when I fell in love with Italian food. After college, I picked cooking school instead of medical school. Then I worked for an Italian restaurant in New York, I met Piero Selvaggio [the owner of Valentino in Santa Monica] and worked for him in Las Vegas. Together with Zach Pollack, I opened Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, where our pizzas turned out to be quite popular. Four years ago, we opened Sotto Los Angeles. Later, Zach left to open Alimento in Silverlake, so now it’s just me.”
What did you learn from your cooking experiences in Italy? What is the region, or the city, that inspires you the most?
“To me, Italian food represents a connection with my family. All my memories with my grandparents involve cooking, sitting at the dining table, or chatting after a nice Sunday lunch. That was mostly traditional Bolognese cuisine: tagliatelle, tortellini, hearty meat sauces, and butter rather than olive oil.
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As a chef, I started out with Northern Italian food. But then Piero figured that Southern cuisine had lot of potential, so he encouraged me to go to Southern Italy to study the local cuisine. Among the chefs that I have worked with, two in particular, Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino, near Naples, and Ciccio Sultano of Il Duomo, in Ragusa, Sicily have inspired my style of cooking.
I still go back to Italy once in a while, though not as frequently as I used to. One of the most instructive experiences has been a tour of pizzerias in Naples.”
Why Southern cuisine?
“When I went there, I realized that the food was different from what was offered here in the US. Southern cuisine hardly uses any butter, there is no balsamic vinegar and almost no parmesan – which pop up on pretty much every Italian restaurant menu.
We wanted to have a “regional” restaurant and we also wanted to make pizza, which is from the south. So Southern cuisine was the natural choice.”
Let’s talk about your pizza then.
“Before we opened Sotto Los Angeles, there used to be a pizzeria in this location. Their oven was alright, but not quite the ones I had seen when visiting pizzerias in Italy. When in Naples, I came across Stefano Ferrara Forni, a company that’s been building traditional, handmade Neapolitan brick ovens for three generations. The secret of those ovens is that they can reach very high temperatures, around 800-900°F, so they can cook a pizza in 60-90 seconds. At the same time, the heat gets dispersed relatively quickly.
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The problem is that we could not fit one of their pre-made ovens through the door! So the oven was built onsite by Stefano Ferrara himself and his assistants. It took them ten days. Zach and I immediately tested it with a margherita! The first pizza was fine, but it took another couple of months to get great results. It was quite an investment, but totally worth it. In fact, these ovens are becoming more and more popular among new pizzerias in the US.”
What is the most popular dish at Sotto Los Angeles?
“The grilled pork meatballs have been on the menu since day one, so I guess people love them… Another favorite is the caserecce pasta with lamb ragu. And speaking of ragu, when available, the tagliatelle bolognese are always in high demand. I know, not very Southern…but that’s a tribute to my family traditions.”
What are the ingredients that you really love and that you are proud of having here, and where do they come from?
“We have an excellent wine selection, thanks to my friend Jeremy Parson. Among the other things, he’s a food historian and wine expert, and he points me to lesser-known appellations and producers. Our colatura and bottarga are from Sardinia, and we get great buffalo grana from Campania. We use a lot of fennel pollen in our kitchen. A lot. Our seafood and meat are local.”
So what are you working on now? What’s next?
“Because a large part of our menu is seasonal, I am always busy updating it according to the season. I like to keep it “Southern”, but once in a while I introduce dishes from other parts of the country. One night a week, with “Sopra at Sotto”, we add northern specialities to the menu.
At some point in the future, I want to focus on cuisine from Emilia Romagna, i.e. the region around Bologna. It would a very traditional restaurant, little creative cooking.
Needless to say, we look forward to seeing Steve go back to his “roots” and having some good old-fashioned tagliatelle al ragu. In the meantime, we are happy that he has chosen to introduce Southern Italian cuisine to Los Angeles.”
Sotto Los Angeles
9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Phone: (310) 277-0210