Worth every penny for that special occasion.
Menu: Sotto Varalli Website
Meal: Dinner / Weekday / 7pm
Price: $286 (For Four, Includes Tip)
There’s no shortage of pricey dining choices in Philadelphia, but with someone as stingy as myself, it’s always more difficult to impress. To justify spending hundreds of dollars for a single dinner for four, there has to be some sort of litmus test. There’s got to be a human-sized portion, terrific service, exquisite quality, and and a truly pleasant atmosphere. After nearly three hours with family at Sotto Varalli, I’m pleased to say that the restaurant not only passed our tests, it nearly aced them.
Sotto Varalli is a two-story, dual-identity eatery (the upstairs is called, well, ‘The Upstares’) on the corner of Locust and Broad. The ‘Upstares’ opens only when all the patrons can’t fit into Sotto, and share the same menu and staff with different decors. It was explained to Autumn that the Upstares is more formal and has a better view of the city streets. It’s accessible through traditional means in the city and is very close to PATCO for easy access from South Jersey. Upon entering, you’re greeted by a maitre d’ who takes you to your seats; we got a window spot looking into the avenue of the arts intersection. If you want more privacy, ask for a booth in the back – they’re large, u-shaped, and upholstered for comfort and privacy. Throughout the entire downstairs, there is a sea theme with a very cool octopus tangling around the ceiling over the bar. Even the bathroom door handles are fashioned in the form of ‘tentacles’. The bathrooms were very clean but had a rather un-progressive and semi-unsanitary tri-fold napkin setup. As a whole, the interior is not overbearing or pretentious, and feels to be a unique design. The bar is off-center and if you’re on the window side expect to see the wait staff moving about.
Our waitress was terrific. She was genuinely polite and answered every question we had with great command of the menu. She was incredibly attentive and reminded us what top-quality table service is all about. We’d expect no less for the premium pricing of such a place, but I am incredibly peeved when I get the feeling that restaurant owners and staff think they’re doing *us* a favor by serving them. Clearly, that was not the case at Sotto and I felt welcomed and respected. We all started off with drinks; the two ladies ordered cosmopolitans, while Autumn and I stuck to our favorites (malibu and diet coke and long island iced tea, respectively). All were a hit except my iced tea, which disappointingly suffered from the ‘sour mix syndrome’ I have grown to loathe. While I loved the tall pilsner glass it was served in, two of them couldn’t get me nearly as buzzed as two (apparently) smaller teas from Nipper’s a few days ago. Perhaps it’s time I start expressly stating that I do not wish to have any sour mix… it simply dilutes the more expensive alcohol I’d rather be paying for. Maybe I can order the ingredients individually next time and just mix them myself. The recipe is on wikipedia.. what do you think?
For appetizers, we tried the bruschetta and threw in an additional order of mozzarella and tomatoes. Both were superb. The bruschetta was easily the best I’ve had, and was prepared with sharing in mind. It was served as four different varieties on medium-sized breads – and did not feature any annoying flavor-altering prosciutto. One came with rich mozzarella and a roasted red pepper, one with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and mozzarella, one in the style of a garlic bread, and one a traditional bruschetta. The stand-alone mozzarella appetizer was a little more ‘down to earth’ with simple sliced chunks in a bed of greens and tomatoes. We finished everything happily. With our meals, we were even offered more bread .. half as a tomato/pizza strip and the others plain. They were served with butter, an amazing pesto sauce, and a less impressive olive oil and red pepper. Presentation of all the meals, appetizers, and even the bread was fantastic.
After filling up on bread, we received our salads. Worth noting is that when Autumn mentioned that she was splitting her salad with me, our house salads were actually served in half portions on separate plates. Very thoughtful on behalf of our waitress and the restaurant, and it’s not something I’ve personally seen before [Moreover, there wasn’t a moronic ‘sharing charge’ that some classless restaurants like to throw at you. I’d love to know if places actually enforce such a thing, because I’d blow an artery if I actually saw the charge]. The salads were very good, though not especially memorable. With drinks, appetizers, bread, more bread, and salads, we weren’t 100% sure we’d even have room for our meal.
When the food arrived, we expected it to be delicious based on everything else we’d have. Autumn’s filet mignon, which was truly a ‘melt in your mouth’ experience, was received almost fully on the rare side when it was ordered medium. It was a surprising miss for Sotto, but she enjoyed every bite all the same. The other ladies at the table ordered the jumbo scallops and gnocci. The scallops received rave reviews, and were described as ‘cooked perfectly’. The gnocci had similar praise, and both scored their individual entrees a ‘5’ when queried. My clam and calamari linguine, while a respectable entree, didn’t really taste out of range with something I could get at the likes of an Olive Garden. The calamari consisted of the rings only, no tentacles (yes, I’m sure some of you are wondering why I’m complaining), and the artichokes in the mix didn’t seem to fit in as well as the other stuff. The littleneck clams were fresh and very tasty, but there strangely wasn’t a whole lot of actual pasta in the dish. Autumn’s medium-rare-rare (although delicious!) steak and my pasta entree closed the door on what I believed may have been a top score in the making during the first hour or so in the restaurant.
For dessert, we finished with tiramisu (my favorite), a chocolate pyramid, and two orders of triple chocolate mousse. The tiramisu was done perfectly – not battered in rum – but a distinctive, freshly mild coffee flavor with perfect touch of chocolate and cream. For now, it may be the standard of which I rate others. The triple chocolate mousse (cakes) were received well, but perhaps not to the degree of enjoyment that appeared memorable. The chocolate pyramid, though, was loved across the table and my only wish was that it was slightly larger. To be honest, everything on the dessert menu looked fantastic and it was tough to decide.
After giving the waitress an unusual 30% tip (based on her service), we left Sotto with full stomachs and happy hearts. While it missed hitting our top score, it came very close to pulling an outright coup; let’s face it, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you’ll know that I can be awful tight about paying for a $4 milkshake, let alone nearly $300 for something my digestive system is just going to kick out of me in a day. For its terrific service and mostly gourmet-quality food, we’ll be back after our financial adviser gives us the OK.
– Terrific service/speeds
– Great, original atmosphere
– Two stories on the weekends
– Delicious appetizers and bread
– Three good cocktails
– Entrees ranged from very good to excellent
– Convenient location to NJ
– No ‘deal breaker’ moments
– Went a little cheap on my long island iced tea
– Missed the cook-to-order on a $29 filet (was not sent back)
– Not every menu item lives up to the bar set by others
– Usually no ‘Upstares’ (better views) dining on the weeknights
– Zagat rated (they’re so stuffy you can’t even view their scores without buying their book or paying for their website access!)
Guru’s Score: 4.35
Autumn’s Score: 4.7
Combined Score: 4.53 Chews
Subjective rating: Rob the ATM and make a reservation.
Have you been to Sotto Varalli? If so, please add your rating! (Limited to 1 Vote per IP Address.)
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