SOTTO IN THE VILLAGE (425 Spadina Road, at Lonsdale, 416-322-8818) Complete dinners for $65 per person ($30 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of consignment wine. Average main $25. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, but narrow, crowded room. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was one of the last balmier evenings of the season in Forest Hill, but it might as well have been as chilly as Transylvania.
We've arrived at Sotto in the Village, the recently launched uptown sibling of Sotto Sotto, that pricey subterranean Italian grotto popular with visiting celebs staying at Yorkville's Four Seasons just down the road. We've made the requisite reservations (a pleasant woman on the phone assured us that, yes, even on a Tuesday at 6 pm it's a good idea, as it does get quite packed early) and have shown up at the appointed hour.
We're met at the door of the narrow 40-some-seat eatery by a cadaverous chap who exudes all the warmth of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and after a sneer and a dismissive wave of his hand, he asks us to follow him. He leads us to one of several empty marble-topped tables in the middle room, this one pulled right up against that of a well-heeled woman of advanced age dining alone on very puréed cream of cauliflower soup ($7.95). We point out the lovely vacant table in a nearby corner framed by an ornate gilded mirror.
"It's booked for seven," he barks.
Now, we're not a bunch of country bumpkins or day-tripping interlopers. Tonight I've brought along Ross and Joanne Young of Queen West's 20th Century Gallery. They're a fairly sophisticated couple, having just returned from their annual summer jaunt eating their way through Venice, Paris and, er, Sarnia. Fellow art dealer and friend Jared Sable and family are having dinner in Sotto's front window. Hell, I've even combed my hair.
The cold shoulder may be shocking, but considering what follows at Sotto, not entirely unexpected. Once the Count exits stage left, we're attended by a very chatty server. We volley her parlay of, "And how are you tonight?" with our own polite inquiry about her well-being. She then proceeds to tell us more than we really care to know about what she had for dinner last night and its subsequent effects on her gastro-intestinal system.
"But don't worry, I didn't eat it here," she laughs. "Can I get you something to drink?"
No, but you can put your hands in the air where we can see them and slowly back away from the table. She soon returns with complimentary bruschetta, a trio of grilled baguette slices topped with chunky tomato and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
We're tucking into our shared starters doughy, somewhat soggy battered calamari fritti ($11.95) paired with a terrific roasted red pepper 'n' tomato salsa, an innocuous Caesar salad ($10.95) made with knife-cut romaine that may as well be iceberg when a fight breaks out in the kitchen.
After several minutes, the shouting match dies down. Since it's in Italian a good sign foodwise, I suppose we nervously ask what it was about.
"Oh, that happens all the time," she replies. "The chef's deaf."
It's now approaching 7 and the party who were smart enough to book the primo corner table have finally arrived. They're led by David Frum, the neo-con nitwit from the National Post. Well, there go our appetites.
We soldier on regardless with our mains. Agnello con Carciofi ($18.95) turns out to be a generously portioned stew of tasty tender lamb laced with artichoke leaves. Other big plates of marrow-rich osso buco ($23.95) and super honey-braised short beef ribs ($22.95) come with identical sides: grilled polenta and veggies du jour. Under the misconception that sides are á la carte, we've also ordered a heap of Swiss chard dressed with a suggestion of roasted garlic, and a bowl of Salsa Giovanni (both $6.95) that seems to be exactly the same thing that came with the calamari, only minus the peppers.
Polishing off the last of a delightfully smoky Spanish red (03 Roble Prado Rey, $10.50 glass/$42 bottle), we realize we've ordered way too much food and signal our server that we're finished even though our plates are still half-full. Suddenly speechless, she quickly removes them. We never see them again. Doesn't Forest Hill do leftovers?
There's certainly room for dessert. When we ask if they're made in-house, our server assures us.
"Well, not really," we're told. "They're made at the other Sotto, and the tiramisu's ($7.50) sold out. But it's not one of our better ones anyway."
Instead, we make do with Dolce Africa ($10.95), an airy multi-tiered chocolate torte layered with banana and golden merengue. By now, Sotto is jammed to the rafters, the noise level rendering the CD playing on the sound system Zuccharo, the Phil Collins of Italian pop virtually inaudible, which, come to think of it, is no bad thing.
We thread our way toward the door through a long line of air-kissing folk dressed in velour workout suits and designer flip-flops clamouring for tables.