Seafood is to Italians what Yorkshire pudding is to Brits, its just something you can’t live without. Some prepare it and the result is like an out of body experience, you just have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming and that this food is real. This is what will happen to you when you try owner Rich Azzolino unique and wonderful fare. A staple for most in North Beach, but this So Cal Gal never ever had seafood this good. Italian or not this restaurant really hit all the high notes.
Christmas time at Sotto Mare is a big event. There are stockings on the wall for each employee and every customer that comes in wishes Rich a Merry Christmas. He has Christmas at his aunts every year with 35 family members and everyone doing their special dish. Rich calls his aunt Ha Ha because he couldn’t pronounce her name as a kid. He also told me that he really looks forward to spending time with is family.
Here’s what I tried:
Oyster on half shell; West Coast and East Coast, both wonderful little delicacy’s that melt I your mouth.
Cracked Crab, there is a problem with Bay Area crab, dangerous toxin closed California crab season. California health officials finding high levels of Domoic acid in crab meat; because Pacific Ocean waters are staying warm, crab remains poisonous, so Washington State crab was served, but nonetheless it was amazing!
Benita’s Baccala, this is a must have appetizer in Italy as well as the world. They reconstitute dehydrated Baccala fish frozen in Italy and add some great sweet tomatoes and other ingredients and make a remarkable dish.
Our Best Chowder, with bacon, really delicious, rich and creamy and chalk full of fresh whole clams. Each soup is cooked to order and the clams are fantastic.
Mussel/Clam Steamers, there is a very nice lemon garlic sauce and the shell fish is so fresh you feel like it came out of the water that day.
The “Best Damn Crab Cioppino” with seafood ~ enough for two! They have a greet reputation and mostly because of this dish. Rich’s grandmother taught him how to make this in 3 different tries, each time with new things to add. When he asked his Nona why she did not give him the full recipe the first time she said he would have never remembered it. (Recipe is included in the review.)
Sea Scallop Sautè, wild caught. The scallops are cooked with lots of full good flavor, but it’s really the sauce that kept me coming back for more.
Grilled Sand Dabs, fillets. These little flats gems are perfectly grilled; there are no microwaves at this fine establishment. A true keeper.
Risotto with seafood, chef’s choice. This is a very delicate dish, with very small pieces of seafood and a light sauce. I would definitely order this next time.
Fettuccine with Smoked Salmon with white sauce. This is the surprise dish of the night. The salmon is smoked and you just don’t expect that from a fettuccine dish. I loved this dish with a capitol L.
Here are the wines I tried:
House vino – Bianco and Rosso, both house wines were very drinkable, and went well with all the fish dishes served.
Chardonnay, Santa Barbara. This is a fruit forward buttery Chardonnay that went great with the Cracked Crab and the oysters.
Montepulciano, Italy. Like any good Italian red wine you want to enjoy with meat or red sauces full of tomatoes. This wine was delightful with the Cioppino.
Zinfandel, Sonoma. I liked this great full-bodied wine with the Sand Dabs and the Bacalla, each with it’s own unique flavors that worked well with this one of my favorite wines.
They don’t serve dessert; they claim that they don’t want to give you diabetes or other diseases that you can get from dessert. Instead they want you to enjoy their fish and that’s all. They even give you a note telling you where to go to get dessert if you would like it.
Owner Rich Azzolino can tell so many fun stories, each with its own punch line. Born and raised in North Beach, he says he is the only family restaurant owner born and raised in North Beach, continuing the tradition of home cooking. Sotto Mare opened in 2003. Rich says he enjoys running a restaurant too much to stop, he says, “Sotto Mare is always loud, and there are always celebratory diners, if I stop having a good time you won’t find me here.” He only serves food that is in season, that’s his motto, he doesn’t worry about the rest. Some of the fresh fish is caught by the Farallon Islands and their pasta and olive oil are imported from Italy.
The décor is fun and frivolous, there is so much to look at. A lot of the wall decorations are sent to him from his repeat customers from all over the world. Lots of very big catches are also adorning their walls.
It’s a Family affair at Sotto Mare, his wife Laura and daughter Ria work at the restaurant as well, except for his son who has his own vocation and stayed out of his Dad’s business. Laura is the hostess, he says, “best hostess I ever had”. Married for 40 years, he says, “She is a really good person.” Sunday is their feet up night and Tuesday is their date night. Giving back is also part of Rich’s philosophy, Jan. 9th he has a crab event, feeding 600 to 700 people.
A little history about Sotto Mare: Dante Benedetti was a patriarch of North Beach. Throughout the years and up until his death in 2005, Mr. Benedetti was very well known for helping those in need. He took care of old folks, baseball teams and anyone else that needed his help. Gigi Fiorucci, Sotti Mare previous owner, knew Mr. Benedetti from his childhood and throughout his life. The building that Soto Mare now occupies was once owned by Mr. Benedetti and is currently a low income housing on it’s upper levels, The “Pensione Dante Benedetti Hotel’. Gigi Fiorucci was described by The Chronicle’s Herb Caen as a “veteran restaurateur” … roughly 30 years ago.
Sotto Mare was Fiorucci’s 13th San Francisco restaurant, and he said it will be his last. Oddly enough, the location was also home to his first restaurant — he opened the Montclair at that very same North Beach address decades ago. Since then, he has maintained a pattern of operating a restaurant for five years or so, then closing it to travel for two years, and then doing it all again in a new spot. “Once it’s in your blood every day it never leaves. It’s so much fun to be with the people that to me, it is the best job in the world,” he says. “It makes you feel good just to say hello to people, be nice to them and make them happy — it’s what it’s all about.” Rich keeps all of this wonderful tradition very much alive at Sotto Mare. This is the kind of restaurant that will have you coming back for more every time you’re in San Francisco, trust me I know!!
Sotto Mare Ciopinno Recipe
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. crushed red chile flakes
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 cups fish stock
1 1⁄2 cups whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed
10 leaves basil
1 lb. cod, cut into 2″ chunks
1 lb. cleaned calamari, bodies cut into 1⁄2″-wide rings
12 oz. medium shrimp, deveined
12 oz. bay scallops
16 clams, cleaned
16 mussels, cleaned
2 (2-lb.) Dungeness crabs or snow crab legs, halved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat oil in an 8-qt. Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chile flakes and garlic; cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes, and basil; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add cod, calamari, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, and crabs, cover with lid, and cook until seafood is cooked through, about 8 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA.