In more ways than one, their new spot is a step down
For the last 10 years, the peculiarly spelled Upstares at Varalli has been a top-floor success in middle-tier dining. On this testy stretch of South Broad, other restaurants have had less luck navigating the shifting identity of the Avenue of the Arts. Can the Varalli brothers, Joseph and executive chef Ernest, continue their streak at street level with a new seafooder called Sotto? Other restaurateurs have had difficulty rolling with the uneven waves of the largely theater-going clientele that has remained, unable to turn the tables in time for a curtain, or charging over-ambitious prices in an already tight fine-dining field. Upstares has floated above it all, so to speak, luring clients up the winding staircase to its sunny, windowed perch on the second floor. The wrap-around view is great for down-staring at the Academy of Music across the Avenue. But it is the comfy pasta-centric Italian menu that is the draw, appealing less for its culinary revelations (there are none) than its steady quality, easy turn-out, and relative affordability. By aiming just a little lower than fine-dining, the brothers have captured a lucrative middle niche, surviving more on suburban visitors than Center City locals. And the once sorry northeast corner of Broad and Locust has thrived as they spent millions renovating and expanding their domain, first through the top floors of two buildings and finally this spring into the ground floor with Sotto, which means "under" in Italian. Judging from the giant squid they've mounted over the bar, it feels as if we've plunged 20,000 leagues beneath the sea. In Philly's growing gallery of gargantuan restaurant sculptures, this 28-foot monster of twining arms and dangling suckers could give Buddakan's glamorous golden Buddha the creeps. But the Varallis play the colossal calamaro to their advantage, giving the theater crowd a bigger-than-life prop for the menu's theme. The only catch this time is that everyone in town these days seems to be playing the same show, opening casual seafood restaurants from Rittenhouse Square to Manayunk. Sotto, at first glance, seems a nice addition to this bouillabaisse. The sunny bar and large, booth-filled dining rooms are separated by tranquil waterfall windows, offering plenty of aqua-painted space. The appealingly eclectic menu of Mediterranean styled seafood is modestly priced, with virtually every entree under $20. The wine list, too, is created with a budget in mind, offering several interesting bottles for under $40. Unfortunately, with every element in place for another Varalli success, the kitchen suffers from too much mediocrity, a condition less forgiving with seafood than it is with a pasta-based menu. Service, too, is no better than pleasant, with the right demeanor but none of the attention span needed to really take care of guests. Long-empty water glasses and uneven pacing were a problem, especially at a painfully slow lunch that should have been a quickie. In its more successful efforts, Sotto's nightly fish specials were prepared with simple ease, grilling a swordfish steak to moist perfection, sauteeing halibut in a tasty lemon butter with slivered almonds, or roasting medallions of monk fish with crispy cubes of salty pancetta. The paella was a hearty medley of seafood and flavorful saffron rice. And basic soups like New England clam chowder and baked onion were satisfying classics, even if the onion soup's crust of cheese came barely melted. Too often, though, dull flavors and clumsy cooking left me flat. Deep fried spring rolls filled with lobster and shredded carrot were consistently greasy. In two tries, the mountainous calamari appetizer never came hot. Langostinos were steamed instead of grilled, as they are commonly prepared, and came out overdone and tepid. Classic shrimp cocktail and crabcakes were fine. Garlicky steamers were flavorful. And the Asian-tinged dumplings were tasty despite crimped edges that were gummy. But more ambitious appetizers such as tuna carpaccio and salmon gravlax needed some extra finesse. The tuna had a nice flavor, but was overwhelmed by its pepper crust. The salmon was undercured and paired with a fried risotto and onion cake that had zero taste. This was the problem with all of Sotto's risottos, which are par-cooked with generic broth for efficiency, then garnished with flavors later. Whether studded with salmon roe and dill or sage and aioli, they show the kitchen's shortcut in sticky textures instead of creaminess, and disappointing faded flavors. A thick cut of prime rib was an easy gesture for our carnivore, tender enough but lacking distinctive flavor. A vegetarian dish of porcini ravioli cleverly used shreds of sun-dried tomato to perk through the richness of its creamy sauce. Even for a reluctant fish-phobe, a good fried fish and chips ought to be appealing. Sotto promises to make it with quality fish, but the batter-cloaked scrod was so overfried, it disintigrated on the tongue. Tiny tempura fried lobster tails were also overdone, but suffered mostly from a thick, very un-tempura breading that concealed errant bits of shell. A grilled salmon special for lunch was also a bland letdown, with edges that had carelessly been cooked to leather. Sotto's desserts can make amends if you order right, avoiding the undersweetened rice pudding and unnaturally green pistachio ice cream. The amply portioned tiramisu, for example, is light and creamy with coffee and alcohol. The tartufo comes plopped on the plate like a cocoa-dusted meteor, but has a good ice-cream core to keep your spoon moving. And double-chocolate cake delivers the appropriate cocoa punch. It is enough to sate the sweet tooth and, maybe, even get you to the show on time. But with plenty of new competition for your seafood dollar, this addition to the Broad Street shuffle still has a long way to go before it rises to the survivor success of its older brother Upstares.