Boca and Sotto: Third Act Twist

In the middle of the journey of her life, our dining critic came to the bright red door of a fabled address that revealed not one but two new restaurants—Boca and Sotto. She was not lost—but oh, what she found.

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This review is a slight departure from our usual restaurant coverage. First, it’s here, among the features, instead of in the Dine section. Second, it focuses on two restaurants instead of one. And finally, it is my last review for Cincinnati Magazine as I move on to different adventures. I knew months ago that I wanted Boca and Sotto to be the last review. Even though I’ve covered Boca numerous times in our annual Best Restaurants issue, I had never written a full review in the eight years I’ve been Dining Editor. Also, the new space the restaurant inhabits holds a special place in the collective memory—and hearts—of many Cincinnatians. But the review almost didn’t happen. Shortly after Boca and Sotto opened this spring, I learned—much to my surprise—that I had become persona non grata in David Falk’s restaurants, in part because Boca (in its former Oakley location) had fallen off my Top 10 list this past year. I’m glad he had a change of heart. You’ll see why. —D.C.

Eight years. That is how long the building has stood vacant, the balconied facade weathered and posing little clue to its storied past. For decades it had been home to Maisonette, the classic French restaurant that garnered 41 consecutive five-star ratings from Mobil Travel Guide (the longest run in the guide’s history). Nurtured by three generations of Nat and Vallie Comisar’s family, Maisonette produced dozens of talented culinary and hospitality professionals now populating kitchens and dining rooms near and far. The cozy banquettes, cabernet-red velvet, jacket-and-tie dress code, and rolling cordial cart were part of a fine dining history that struggled to meet the emerging culture of informality and eventually succumbed to it, closing its doors—as well as those of its subterranean companion restaurant La Normandie—in 2005.
But now, somebody has spilled gorgeous all over 114 East Sixth Street.

At about the same time diners were bidding adieu to Maisonette, 29-year-old chef David Falk—who had spent two of his formative cooking years in its kitchen—was busy relocating Boca, a small Northside bistro he had purchased in 2001. Though he consistently filled seats and reaped critical acclaim for his modernist Italian cuisine, Falk’s ambition was much larger than 14 tables. He had proven himself a chef; now it was time to show investors he could make money with a location that would triple the seating. And so in late 2004, Falk didn’t so much open Boca in its new Oakley location as unleash it on the public.

Most nights the bar was six pretty people deep; the main dining room thrummed with a velocity unmatched by other eateries, and the staff swooped and swooned over tables with balletic grace, delivering rich handmade pastas, chubby pork shanks, and nuggets of vinegary Brussels sprouts. Falk’s ingenuity lay in fusing the robust flavors of Italy—much of it rooted in peasant fare—with the snazz of luxurious textiles, a sommelier, and valet parking. Portions were small, plates large and unadorned, and price points high, making it one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. Boca was fiercely personal: Falk’s unbridled energy and full-frontal bravado exalting the drama of dining.

We ate it up. The reborn Boca—Boca 2.0—was celebrated and decorated by diners. It adorned the pages of this magazine’s annual Best Restaurants issue, topping the list twice (2005 and again in ’08). But by 2008, Falk and company had added another restaurant to their portfolio—a 7,000-square-foot, seven-day-a-week, welcome-to-the-party place replete with limey margaritas, modern Mexican street food, and a kick-ass patio at the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets.

Nada was a game changer for what was now called the Boca Restaurant Group (BRG); it raked in money hand over fist. Falk, a third generation Italian, wanted a trattoria as well, a concept he had tried to make work in Boca’s back room with slightly lower prices and a simpler menu that featured handmade pizza. But it never quite caught on. With Nada’s success and the vibrant growth of the city’s core, it made sense to move the rest of BRG’s operation downtown. It would take five years, but Boca was on the move again.

Falk finally got his trattoria. The basement that once housed Nat Comisar’s first restaurant, La Normandie—a chophouse that had been operating for 74 years when it closed—is the ideal fit for Sotto, Italian for below. Trattorias are traditionally informal eateries with homespun food, and Sotto’s elaborate design is chock full of rustic detail that exudes a moody sexiness: handmade lamps, subdued light, planked tables, exposed brick with weeping grout, red draperies tied back with rope, tarnished silver candlesticks, and—trend alert— heavy white cotton dishtowels as napkins.

To call the food simple is not to slight it, grounded as it is in the Italian tradition of relative modesty and few frills. Some of the dishes are transplants from Boca, in particular the pastas and the Bistecca Fiorentina, 35 ounces of beautifully seasoned and grilled porterhouse. A selection of bruschetta ranges from the bare bones (rubbed with garlic) to uncomplicated but savory (porchetta and pickled shallots; chicken liver mousse and pistachios) to the show-offy (buffalo mozzarella, anchovy, and tomato tucked into lemon halves and roasted). You could make an entire meal of the antipasti—a variety of cured meats, baby kale Caesar, cannellini beans with poached tuna and soffritto, or a bowl of sturdy polenta voluptuous with browned butter, lomo, parmigiano, and a fried egg.

If you happen to wander toward the back of the restaurant you’ll come upon a large windowed room lit up like a laboratory; behind the glass, two uniformed people huddle over a long table cranking out handmade pasta—pea ravioli perhaps, or cappellacci, little hats stuffed with short rib. This is the Primi room (or as a friend described it, “Sotto is holding two people in a terrarium. They appear to be doing OK, and are passing the time by making spaghetti.”), which is next to the Carne (butchering) room, which is next to six huge refrigerated walk-ins, including one for curing meats.

Chef de Cuisine Danny Combs is a pasta wizard. With due respect to the many varieties made fresh in house, I’ve got a crush on the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, a lusty example of why Italians are the gatekeepers of la dolce vita. Uniquely Roman, the deceptively simple preparation—butter, pecorino, and black pepper—is one of those dishes that become a litmus test for kitchen skills. Combs’s version is warm and pungent with a spicy smack of black pepper handily cutting the salty pecorino. If this is what they mean by do as the Romans do, I’m in.

A carafe of table wine is not something I would normally order, but Sotto’s (two choices: red or white) is made special by the Abrigo Fratelli winery in the hills of Langhe. For $24 a carafe, this is a good deal—a cheerful everyday wine, a blend of sweet fruit and bright acidity that pairs well with Sotto’s rich pastas.

If Sotto is humble, its interior soulfully rustic, its fare grandmotherly in the fine Italian way, then Boca 3.0 is operatic. Prepare to be wowed.

The new Boca—this second reboot—is a restaurant that could get by on looks alone. It’s not merely the contrast to Maisonette (though it’s a startling one) but the jaw-dropping response induced by the synthesis of design elements, an aesthetic Falk likens to “part La Bohème, part Beauty and the Beast.

As it turns out, Jono Fries is a bit of a Renaissance man. Fries, who led the design effort for both restaurants alongside local architect Ron Novak, began as a line cook at the Northside Boca, eventually weaving his way into chef, then creative director, and now vice president and chief operating officer. His vision stunningly revivifies a hallowed space and celebrates the vitality of the future. A staircase spans the two-story well where the ceiling was cut open to expose a mezzanine; portions of wall have been exposed to the brick, the ceiling exposed to the rafters. Against those bones of warehouse chic, Fries interweaves textiles with woods, glazed tile, blood orange leather, antler, glass, and pewter for a dizzying parade of textures and styles. It’s an interior with one foot in 19th-century Paris and the other in contemporary Milan. The central figure is a mammoth, turn-of-the-century French chandelier that Fries found for sale online. In an unfortunate turn of events, the owner passed away the same morning he called to inquire about it. Figuring he had lost it, Fries turned to Mike Williams of Wooden Nickel Antiques to help him find another. Williams happened to know both the chandelier and the widow, and several weeks later it arrived in boxes, ready for the Wooden Nickel team to restore, rewire, and reassemble.

The seating is as diversified as the design elements, with room for 200 grouped in traditional four-tops, communal tables, long central couches, leather banquettes, counter seats at the open kitchen, and an elegant table for 12 framed by the second floor windows. Perhaps the most notable of them all is Table 75, the cozy semi-private booth done in brothel red that was known to hundreds of rock stars, VIPs, and lovebirds during Maisonette’s long run.

The second hit belongs to the menu. Though Boca’s chefs remain (mostly) true to the mission of simplicity, the menu does two things differently: it lowers the overall prices (even offering half portions of entrées) and takes a step away from its Italian roots, moving forward by reaching back. The haricot vert salad is reminiscent of the classic Lyonnaise; both the pastry-wrapped beef Wellington with foie gras mushroom duxelle and pommes soufflé are a nod to Maisonette. The hamachi crudo is among the best I’ve ever eaten, its marbled richness a perfect foil to the avocado, grapefruit, shishito pepper, and ponzu sauce. A few signature dishes remain, including those crazy little caramelized Brussels sprouts, grilled romaine, and the Amish chicken with wild mushrooms, truffle-laced risotto, and a silky chicken jus that, bottled, could bring about world peace.

The other difference is long overdue: the addition of pastry chef Amy Guterba. Her faithfulness to clarity of flavor is apparent in her brilliant gelatos (my pursuit of happiness now includes her lime yogurt gelato); warm, sugar-dusted ricotta doughnuts (at Sotto); and a delicate buttermilk panna cotta with macerated berries (Sotto) or roasted pineapple (Boca).

When considering the enormity of this project, Falk quotes Winston Churchill: It was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. “We were taking one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, moving it into a fine-dining restaurant that had closed for being too fine-dining, and tripling its size. It was a massive challenge.” But Falk is a creature of challenge. With his trademark manic intensity, a ferocity few match, and a reverence for the craft and stamina of the business, it’s not perfection that sets his projects apart but his constant quest for it.

Sotto, 118 E. Sixth St., (513) 977-6886, sottocincinnati.com

Boca, 114 E. Sixth St., (513) 542-2022, bocacincinnati.com

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Comments

  1. vudutu

    July 21, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Say it ain’t so, Donna what will we do without you! I wish you well on your next adventure.

  2. Richard Asimus

    July 22, 2013 at 2:35 am

    Thanks, Donna, for your informative, inner worlds, with flair dining articles. I will miss your views very much. May your next adventures be fabulous.