The Italian joint with a topsy-turvy turnaround
Sotto Sopra in Rosebank once confused diners with its fine dining menu upstairs and casual eating below. Then Covid struck. Now a break and rethink and an interesting new chef have worked wonders.
From the beginning, Jozi diners found this Rosebank restaurant bright and fun in a foreign way. It still is. But there was that confusing business about casual eating downstairs (Sotto) and fine dining upstairs (Sopra), two menus and offerings separated by a few steps. That was almost two and a half years ago, but Covid came along and, amid that further mess, one of the partners left.
But Sotto Sopra is a newly wonderful find right now.
I’ve been here for an hour and it’s exciting, unexpected. Like finding someone called Jared Melamed at the pass when I arrived. No, he’s not Italian and he’s not a formally qualified chef either. It struck me as unusual but, Mamma Mia, by now I can tell he creates downright delicious food and that he has formidable experience.
He shows me some cute and clever pasta pieces about half the size of Marie biscuits that he makes with a corzetti pasta stamp. His stamp produces a little embossed octopus on one side of the pasta rounds. On the other are what looks like Braille. He serves the pasta discs as Medaglioni al Calamari, the Braille side of the big “coins” especially encouraging his wine, garlic, butter and parsley reduction to adhere satisfyingly, among the calamari pieces.
Sotto Sopra was always going to be slightly eccentric. When you put the two prepositions “under” and “over” together like that, like Sottosopra, in Italian it means “topsy-turvy”. Here you can expect some tasty breaks with age-old Italian food traditions, turning some of those on their heads. Of course, any Italian food matriarch or nonna you know will throw up her hands. She might also lick her lips, but still.
Jared and I began our conversation through the slats of the shelves at the pass. He’s a self-taught chef, having left South Africa at 17 after watching Anthony Bourdain programmes as he grew up. He worked kitchens in Europe and the east. So he trained his taste buds, his brain and his hands to know and create the ultimates. He knows Italian food of course, knows its unwritten rules. He does know that even slightly altering an Italian nonna’s food is a no-no but he does it anyway, for well thought out reasons, he says. “Not for a whim. Have you ever seen trad Italian food beautifully plated?” Good question. We just expect Italian food to be what it is. Jared insists, “I want to give the best respect to Italian foods. Our plating is exceptionally important here.” It’s true, Sotto Sopra’s food is utterly beautiful to behold.
We move to a more conducive conversation spot on an L-shaped seat at a table in the upper Sopra section of the restaurant, decorated primarily by the partner that stayed. He’s Piero Carrara, originally of Verona, but famed for his own Jozi restaurant institutions, Cornutti and Stella e Luna. It’s more showy downstairs but the overall décor effect is pleasantly reminiscent of the Memphis Milano of the 80s, bold, colourful and graphic.
We’re in a rather cool-to-behold part of Rosebank. Indeed, Rosebank seems composed of such pockets of coolth these days. The Trumpet, behind which is David Higgs and co’s Pantry and which building features his “baby”, Marble restaurant, is ever a five-starred spot on Jozi’s culinary map or app.
On the Trumpet’s Keyes Avenue street level side are some good food and coffee places. Then, sandwiched like a bright liquorice all-sort, between True Design and a gelato place called Minikuro where the flavours are Mirtillo Rosso and Mandarino rather than mere salted caramel, is our Sotto Sopra.
In all, it’s a satisfying location and, as Jared’s culinary surprises preoccupy my senses, there is that food satisfaction too. That warm appreciation of excellence.
His other pasta ravioli, big or small, are strong suits of this chef. Here I have a big raviolo, looking like a flying saucer on a launch pad, to the fork and the tooth yieldingly perfect pasta. The inner circles cuddle fresh spinach and fresh ricotta, a duxelle of mushrooms, then hot truffle-and-butter and a whirl of kitchen-made herb oil. For one of the finest times of my life, I realise this pasta, made here as it is, is the hero itself, never mind the other wonderful aspects to the dish. It is happy-making.
The other smaller ravioli dish is Alla Zucca e Ricotta and I taste but one. It is extraordinary and another dish that’s not for the Italian food police. It’s a mixture of sweetish and savoury, a successful one. The sweetish part is from butternut with Amaretto liquor burned off and toasty amaretti crumbs atop. The savoury comes from the ricotta or is that a taste somewhere in between? Also from the toasted pine nuts, sage and a fave of mine, burned butter.
Another small taste I have from the kitchen is of arancini. I’m not much of a fan except as a way of using up yesterday’s rice. “Use your fingers,” instructs Jared. “It’s street food.” Some street food. These crisp-soft balls don’t conceal a square of melted mozzarella like at my place. They enclose meltingly pulled brisket and Jared’s smoked-tomato chutney and they come with petals of pickled onion on top of them as well as his own “caviar” of red vegetables.
He and I discuss the virtues of Italian passata and I mention that Mike Crewe-Brown of Wicked Earth makes his very own home-grown tomato passata, which must cost more in terms of time and ingredients than the perfectly good Italian imports. Then, as I relate to Jared, I tried his and then I understood. Jared regards me for a few seconds and says he always makes his too, from super-ripe plum tomatoes. “We make everything. Everything.”
By now, I’m realising I’ll have to order some dishes to take away, to sway and impress my Italian food fan neighbour too, when I can also hopefully taste them again. One that will not make it home, not much of it, is my primo of Risotto al’Ossobuco. In it, rich Milanese ossobuco, pulled-tender, and rippled saffron-absorbed rice meet a separate red wine jus and a classy salsa verde. May they never look back from heaven’s gates.
For my neighbour, I feel I have to get another example of perfect risotto and this is made with a lobster bisque and crisp-carapaced prawns. I’ll never get to share this one with him though he’ll pronounce the prawns, even, as his best-yet.
There are pizzas on the menu. I’m not there for those and tease Jared about using lobster with a pizza. He asks if I can imagine, since I cannot eat more, a pasta dish he makes of lobster, yes, Cappelini d’Aragosta, with the lobster’s juices, basil, cream wound through the fine pasta and capped with a kind of very light truffle foam. I swallow hard. I can imagine it. I decide I’ll order that one for the neighbour too. So he’s already got a taste of lobster in his other dish. Tough. With Jared’s abetting assistance I have a tiny bit before it’s packaged, seemingly untouched. On my insistence, I will get to eat some of this one with the neighbour. I have to.
“I refuse to compromise,” emphasises Jared when we talk about expectations and reality. It means that a lot of people who want what they think of as “eating Italian” will be disappointed here. I can see he means it. “By the way, even with your reluctance to discuss pizza, which I understand, one day pop in for a Caccio e Peppe one. You’ll be surprised.” Again.
That leads us onto expectations and reality about desserts too. Somehow I can hardly imagine Jared having to make “typical” desserts like tiramisu. I see an Affogato on his latest seasonal menu. It is Jaredised.
“People might want to kill me but I believe the tastes of Italian food have a lot over those of French food. However, when it comes to patisserie, especially tarts and chocolate, it often has to be French. This is not on the menu so it is a gift. If you are not too hurried, I can give you a small chocolate French tart, made with my favourite Valrhona.” I find I am able to wait.
I can break and have just broken quite a few of my own old Italian food concerns. I wish Angelina Gricoletti, my sometime cooking teacher in a small town in Friuli Venezia Giulia and the closest I had to an Italian nonna before she recently passed away, could be with me today. I somehow think she would understand. Sotto Sopra’s food is turning a lot of what I automatically thought about Italian food on its head in the most delightful, exciting way. There is classico and then there is the new, tastily classy Sotto Sopra. I’m so pleased to have found the latter and Jared Melamed, a phenomenal cook and chef. DM/TGIFood
Sotto Sopra, The Trumpet on Keyes, cnr 19 Keyes and Jellicoe. 076 460 3907 www.sottosopra.co.za
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
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