An Italian showdown hits Itaewon’s streetsIt’s an odd thing. A few years back one couldn’t get decent Italian food in Itaewon for love nor money, and then two pretty decent joints came along within a few months of each other: La Tavola and La Volpaia. Now, there’s another Italian in town, and he means business. His name? Santino Sortino. His game? “Sortino’s.”
Set a bit of a distance from the Western end of the strip, Sortino’s is at the foot of the flight of concrete steps leading up The Hill. Well, not quite the foot, more the knee: It’s a second-floor establishment, with a long, narrow dining room.
There is an open kitchen at one end, from which one can watch the Chef and his merry men slaving away to make your dinner. At the other end is a bar, which is open until late. There are tables alongside the windows, which overlook the street and La Volpaia, a competing establishment ― the management of which must be regarding with dismay the hordes of diners flooding into this newcomer. The tables are brown wood, the floor is tiled and the walls are yellow. The overall ambience is tasteful, but informal and cheerful.
The menu is a pretty basic piece of work: Nothing too creative here, just solid Italian grub, with the emphasis laid firmly on pizza and pasta.
The starters were in short supply and looked a bit uninspiring, so we’ll skip straight to the mains. The Fettucine with Prosciutto and Gorgonzola Cheese in Cream Sauce (16,000 won, around $16) was good, presented simply, with a surprising flavor from the herbs sprinkled on top.
The Risotto with Chianti Wine and Porcini Mushrooms and Bacon (14,000) was sensational. A pink mess of rice, very heavy on the vino, with glistening pink bacon buried in its midst like a treasure chest.
The Pizza Sortino (Porcini Mushrooms, Prosciutto Ham, Tomoto and Mozarella: 16,000 won) was another winner. This offers a very thin base and a lightly dusted crust, while the toppings are generously applied and the tomato paste is excellent. Having sampled it already, the Napoletana (15,000 won) was equally good.
By the way, the pizzas here are large enough to suit the most Pavarottian of appetites, but the pasta dishes are a little more Pinnochio-sized.
My only complaint was the Spaghetti with Black Squid Ink, Calamari and Baby Shrimp and White Wine (15,000 won). While all the dishes above are commendably salty, this one overdoes it. If your idea of a refreshing spritzer is half a pint of the Dead Sea on the rocks, fine, but otherwise ― no. The chef watered it down with stock, but it was too late: The salt had already permeated the pasta.
Now I have to have to confess to being pretty aroused by the wine list, though not due to its size: it’s only four pages. No, this was a professional document, from the ground up.
First, true to the nature of the restaurant, the selections are exclusively Italian. Second, in stark contrast to the murderously ridiculous sums one is forced to cough up for a bottle of liquified grape elsewhere in town, most bottles here are in the 35,000 to 45,000 won range, which is about as affordable as one can legitimately ask for. Thirdly, there are several half bottles available, as well as a selection of six house wines available by the glass ― which is probably some sort of a record in Seoul.
A glass of Rivetto Nebbiolo d’Alba Livano from Piedmont (6,000 won) offered a lively, fruity snout, a light body and a jammy taste ― not bad at all for a pretty versatile red. Cocktails were available at the bar, a range of lagers are also served and there are freshly-squeezed fruit juices for 5,000 won.
A good word, too, for service, which is attentive, friendly and personable, a rare combination. (Note to any restaurateurs reading this: Find out who did the staff training here, and consider ’em for your joint.)
Verdict: Bellisimo! Solid Italian favorites, good ingredients, fair value. But don’t take my word for it: On my first visit, Sortino’s was being patronized by Le Toque Blanc, the professional chef’s association. If these gents don’t know a decent platter of pasta when they see one ― who does?
English: Spoken, with a trilingual menu.
Tel.: (02) 797-0488.
Hours: 2-3:30 p.m.; 5:30-10 p.m. Bar open until 2 a.m..
Location: 2 Floor, 736-11, Hannam Dong, Yongsan Gu.
by Andrew Salmon
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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