908 South Barrington Avenue (at San Vicente Boulevard)
Brentwood, CA 90049
As much as I lamented, dragged kicking and screaming almost literally, anytime I had to eat Italian food, I now quite ironically find myself living smack in the middle of what is becoming unofficially known as LA's Little Italy. Even the street name is Italian – San Vicente. It’s an area with almost a dozen Italian restaurants (as well as some other national chains that perpetrate Italian because they have pizza and pasta *cough* CPK *cough* just to fit in). Maybe I am slowly surrendering because the only other options in the area are those national factory chains and that other despicable-to-me cuisine (Thai), or perhaps...perhaps my tastes are changing because I suddenly have it in my silly little head to try each and every ristorante, osteria and cafe in my neighborhood.
Most of the restaurants that have inhabited the neighborhood since long before last year, I have tried, with the exception of Peppone, which just seems to far out of my league – it’s in the same plaza as Grace Home Furnishings, for fox ache! (Yes, that Grace, that advertises in magazines that I can’t afford to read.) Osteria Latini has become a personal favorite as of late, but the handful of others that have popped up within the last year, I have yet to make my first introduction. On a lazy Sunday, we decided to try Sor Tino Ristorante, the restaurant that is now in the space on Barrington just south of the Boulevard.
Sor Tino is a shortened version of "Senor Agostino," which refers to chef-owner Agostino Sciandri. The restaurant space had an extreme makeover, inside the kitchen and outside, but still has the same soul, as Senor Agostino has a partnership in the Rosti chain, which was Sor Tino’s space in a previous life. Agostino, it seems, is a creature of habit, both in where he plays and how. He also has an interest in Toscana, the high end Italian restaurant not two blocks east on San Vicente, and likes his own name. His other restaurant is Ago.
I have been to neither Toscana nor Ago, but tried Rosti several times when it was there - a convenient dinner pick-up along with dry cleaning across the street at Fazio. I never really liked it because it was a slightly more expensive version of Olive Garden. But that’s all history now, and even though it’s the same, it’s totally different, so palate is wiped clean for Sor Tino.
For fairly late on a Sunday night, Sor Tino was busy. Just over half the tables on the patio were taken, and though there were heat lamps, we opted for one inside. The structure of the interior hasn’t changed much from what I recall, with the larger part of the dining room on the left, and a few high bar tables placed just in front of the open kitchen that used to be Rosti’s to-go case. But the decor is now different. It feel warmer, and though Sor Tino is a step up from Rosti, it feels much more like a home. Especially with about three tables that have high chairs for young Brentwood couples and their perfect 1.5 children.
The menu, which says cucina tradizionale fiorentina, is fairly straightforward. Names are in Italian with English descriptions. For each of the headings Antipasti ed Insalate, Pasta e Risotti, and Carne e Pesce, there are about a dozen different things. There are a handful of the garden variety Pizze and Contorni (which I am guessing translates to "side"). Our young-ish server seems slow, but we forgive him; he is working at the end of a busy weekend. He has a hybrid accent of Italian and California surfer, so I want to call him "Dude-ino." He recalls for us a few specials that were also scrawled out on the chalkboard that we passed out front. None of them sounded interesting, so we sent him off with a starter order of Calamari e Carciofi Fritti whilst we decided on dinner.
Normally, I am not fond of ordering pizze in any place but a pizza “joint.” It's the idea of paying as much as five times more for something that almost never tastes as good as the giant slices. *grr* But I saw it. The Napoli pizza has cheese, tomatoes, capers, anchovies and oregano. When I see anchovies, of almost any variety (Korean style doesn’t count) I order it. And capers. We had to get the Napoli. And just a random choice since this was our first time, we ordered the Cacciucco Livornese, which is such a bad name if you say it out loud. It's a cioppino-style seafood soup with garlic bread. I had just had the manila clams with chorizo and garlic toast at the Hungry Cat, and for some reason, this sounded just as good.
The antipasti looked pretty on the plate, but unfortunately, the calamari just didn’t taste all that great, and though the carciofi (artichokes) were better, there weren’t enough to make up for the calamari. The squid were tender, but something about the coating wasn’t right. It was a little too thick and not quite crisp enough, as if the frying temperature had been too low so they soaked up more oil than necessary. We were there fairly late in the evening for a Sunday, but still the calamari tasted like they had been fried in oil that was a few days, not just hours, old. *ew*
But the dipping sauce was killer. The tomato base was perfectly sweet and spicy, and had whole cloves of sweet, softened garlic. We finished the antipasti only to use them as a means to eat the arrabiata. It made me wish I had ordered one of the pastas. Or maybe just a big steaming bowl of sauce.
Shortly after we had ordered the pizze, I remembered the miserable pizza with anchovies and capers we had only a few weeks
earlier at Shane, and almost regretted it, fearing that it would be the same. Shane’s pizza had been so sickeningly salty I could feel my blood pressure increasing with every bite. I actually drank beer (yes me, beer) to kill the brine, as well as so much water that I felt like the Goodyear blimp the next day. And I was still thirsty. *shudders*
Sor Tino doesn’t get points for presentation (and I guess I don’t get points for photography either) because the pizza looked somewhat disheveled with cheese slipping off the edges and anchovies all twisted and tangled. But what a surprise on the taste. The crust was thin but substantial enough to hold everything together. The sauce was a somewhat milder version of the arrabiata and I could have just licked it right off the crust. Unlike Shane’s anchovies, these had melted ever so slightly into the cheese and though salty, not overwhelmingly so.
Cacciucco Livornese says it’s cioppino style, but basically it is a cioppino. Perhaps they can’t call it a cioppino, because as I remember it, cioppino is actually an American creation out of San Francisco, and Sor Tino is classic Florentine cooking. That’s not to say that Cacciucco Livornese isn’t traditional; just that cioppino is probably more familiar to most people.
It was good. The broth was refreshingly spicy, and had all sorts of creepy crawlies (swimmies?) from the sea. Thank god the shrimp didn’t have shells – I had no desire to get my fingers into an oily red broth. Scallops were naked, too. I ate them though I am not a huge fan of scallops. I think it has something to do with their texture and always feeling like they’re undercooked. I couldn’t identify the fish, which was white, but good thing it wasn’t salmon. That alone would throw me into a whole paragraph of bashing salmon. Mussels and clams were in their shells, but they were easy to eat.
What disappointed me in a major way was the bread. Perhaps now I am spoiled by the garlic toast which should actually be called breaddeepfriedingarlicoil from the Hungry Cat. Sor Tino’s bread, by comparison, was bland, chewy almost to the point of hard, and sort of dry. It was okay to dip into the Cacciucco broth, but still, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Hungry Cat, against which it so miserably didn’t match up. Don’t worry, I only do that with food, not boyfriends. LOL!
Three dishes were filling, but is that a surprise? One was deep fried and the other was dripping with cheese! We even wrapped half the pizza to take home. But despite being full, we ordered a dessert, you know, for a taste. The menu has a few, but Dude-ino named a few specials. Again, nothing stood out, so we went with the standard, tiramisu. It was perfectly chilled just above room temperature so that the mascarpone was soft, but not falling apart. So much for just having a taste.
Sor Tino was good. Nothing, the atmosphere, the service, the food, stood out as exceptional. But, then again, nothing was remarkably bad. I guess, then, you could say Sor Tino was unremarkably unexceptional. But, they do have a patio.