Growing up in a big and very traditional Italian-American family, from an early age I was immersed in the foods of Italy. The dishes my Calabrese grandmother cooked, and that she taught my mother after my parents were wed, defined my childhood—and still dictate my cravings. A diminutive woman, Angelina was the true  head of our family. She raised eleven children on a railroad porter’s salary, and she kept the menu simple, with plenty of beans, pasta, tomatoes and the like.

All of it was perfect, however, and the experience left me with a lifelong reverence for a well-rendered plate of pasta. When my birthday would roll around as a child, I would always ask my mother to make the same thing: the almighty Lasagna. And while that dish is still one of my favorites, in recent years I’ve changed up my birthday tradition.

You see, my grandma also had a way with seafood. But because it was so expensive, she usually only served it during the holidays. Each year on Christmas Eve, festivities would culminate in a huge family meal, the traditional “feast of the seven fishes,” or La Vigilia. With my mother as her aproned understudy, Grandma would cook for three days straight in preparation for this event. We would host literally hundreds of people for dinner, the house overflowing with family and friends. Everyone loved these parties—and everyone was also invited, it seemed.

First visit to Sotto Mare? Make sure to go to the restaurant on the left, and not their less distinguished neighbor beneath the red stripe. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Over the years, I’ve kept the tradition going in my own way. Like most of us, I’ve grown to appreciate seafood far more as an adult. So I still have my feast of the fishes every year, but now I save the occasion for my birthday.

For the past ten years or so, I’ve celebrated the date at what could be my favorite restaurant of them all: Sotto Mare. I swear, it’s like a magic trick: the aroma that comes from that kitchen transports me directly to my grandmother’s house in late December. And instantly, I’m in my happy place.

This year I visited with my good friend Juve Carrillo, chef/owner at the wonderful Los Mayas out in the Richmond District. I’ve literally been telling him about the place for years, and this was his first time visiting the restaurant. Being a native of Mexico’s Yucatán, Juve knows his seafood, so he was in for a serious treat.

We started out with a bottle of sauvignon blanc, the ideal accompaniment for the meal to come. To kick things off, I ordered Benita’s Baccala, a signature Sotto Mare appetizer consisting of salt cod dried and stripped from the bone, then pulverized and mixed with tomato, capers and a proprietary slew of spices. A uniquely delicious starter, it’s served warm with fresh bread, and might be the most Italian flavor you’ll experience all year.

While it’s impossible to go wrong on this menu, being a creature of habit I tend to hew to my favorites. One of these is the salmon, which is always on the board here. Sotto Mare’s product is the freshest you can find anywhere*, and I simply cannot resist a properly grilled piece of salmone. I order it rare, with a side of the house lemon-butter-caper sauce, and it’s perfect every time. Fish entrées are served with seasonal vegetables prepared simply in olive oil, and this time it was a tasty combination of roasted peppers and onions.

Sotto Mare at

All the heavy hitters were on the table for this meal, including Sotto Mare’s peerless Prawn & Scallop Sauté. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

We also order another go-to: the scallop and prawn sauté. I’m fanatical about these scallops, and the only way to improve them is to plate them with the chef’s fat, fresh prawns. It’s a dish to remember, and one you’ll come back for.

Lastly, we order the linguine with seafood, which you’ll often see on Italian menus as Frutti di Mare, or fruit of the sea. A combination of mussels, scallops and prawns tumbling over a generous plate of linguine, this is a must for pasta people. Purists might quibble at the inclusion of cream, but this is a superior version of the dish, and it comes steaming out of the kitchen like a centerfold from Saveur magazine.

All told it was excellent. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, and the staff even tried to embarrass me with an almost tuneful version of Happy Birthday. It was a game attempt, but after several sauvignon blancs, it proved impossible.

Chalk up one more trip around the sun, and another stellar meal from the standout chefs at Sotto Mare. To Rich, Laura, Ria and everyone on the team, thank you! And I’ll see you in the neighborhood…

*Pro Tip: Many don’t know that Sotto Mare is also a seafood market, with everything available fresh, straight from the cold case. It’s the best kept secret in town, and good to know while we’re all hunkering down. Of course, they are also open for takeout and delivery. Enjoy!


Sotto Mare
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 398-3181