Little Italy’s big catch.
Seafood, pasta, and vegetables. That’s pretty much all you’ll find at Sotto Mare Oysteria, a no frills, straight to the point, seafood Italian restaurant located in the heart of North Beach. The decor is an explosion of fishing memorabilia stuffed between old photos of past guests, family, and friends. A plaque reading “welcome to the chaos” is mounted over the open kitchen. Richard, the owner of Sotto Mare, spends most of his time making his way up and down the narrow dining room cracking jokes and making everyone feel like he has been waiting for them to arrive. The overall ambiance is definitely cozy with just the right amount of eccentric North Beach charm. After a couple minutes of taking it all in, we ordered the recommendations that he guaranteed was the reason for the packed house — grilled sand dabs, risotto with seafood and cioppino.
As we waited for our food to come out Richard told us more about the inspiration behind Sotto Mare and why he enjoys his role in its continued growth. “We wanted to do a seafood Italian restaurant without meat,” he quips, “And it’s the freshest seafood you’re going to get in the city because we fight for it every day.” As if on cue our dinner arrives to drive home his point.
We rolled up our sleeves and promptly got to it. The sand dabs were cooked to perfection and the risotto was creamy and savory with just a hint of ocean kissed saltiness. And then we tried the cioppino.
For fans of seafood, Sotto Mare holds its own, but it’s the cioppino that really sets this galley styled eatery apart. The hearty dish is jam packed with clams, mussels, shrimp, baby scallops and a healthy dose of crab swimming in thick tomato sauce served in a stainless steel bowl, making it feel all the more regal for a traditionally provincial dish. There was also penne pasta hiding underneath the smorgasbord of seafood, which was a pleasant surprise.
After expressing our delight with the dish, Richard told us that one of his favorite reasons to be in the dining room was for moments like these. And if we’re being honest, it was probably ours too. The revolving door of customers who show up with luggage in hand to try “the best damn cioppino” is a common occurrence, and we too had that experience. Sadly, as we rushed back to have one last dinner before our flight out of San Francisco we discovered they were closed on Sundays. We’ll definitely be back, but until then, the thought of sinking our teeth into Sotto Mare’s cioppino once more will have to keep us warm at night.