There is no shortage of dining options in the city of Johannesburg. However, when a new restaurant opens on the Keyes Art Mile, it is sure to pique the interest of foodies.

Sotto Sopra is the latest addition to Rosebank’s dining scene. Co-owner Henri Martens describes it as an Italian restaurant which takes traditional flavours and couples them with modern cooking techniques. He says their goal is to become one of South Africa’s top 10 restaurants, comparable to the best globally.

Derived from the Italian word sottosopra, its name translates as “upside down” or “topsy-turvy”. Sotto Sopra – “under” and “above” is perhaps a description of the two sides of the restaurant.

In Sotto, the vibey pizzeria, cocktail bar and deli that has been open since the end of January, the focus is on laid-back, sociable eating. The casual seating area and quirky bar stools make a great setting to kick back with a cocktail — preferably with a touch of prosecco. Their list of virgin cocktails is refreshingly appealing and I would have been happy to order the version incorporating lavender and coconut, had it been available.

Sopra, the finer dining side of the restaurant, officially opened on February 14. Lively jazz music bounces off the glass walls towering against lush greenery. The atmosphere demands a touch of elegance but is kept, light thanks to the funky design elements laced throughout the restaurant, from the furniture, mostly designed by Martens, his partner Piero Carrara, and Dominique Ronbeck, to the quirky light fixtures and artworks scattered across its walls, created by Carrara.

The menu offers a good variety of dishes. Under stuzzichini — appetisers — the baked kale with chilli and grated parmesan, unfortunately, was not available, so I opted for a plate of salted vegetable crisps. Crisp indeed, they were tasty but I felt they could have come with a light dipping sauce to add flavour.

Sotto: the vibey pizzeria.
Sotto: the vibey pizzeria.
Image: Supplied
Sopra: the finer dining side of the restaurant.
Sopra: the finer dining side of the restaurant.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

I will never pass up the opportunity to order a plate of pasta from an Italian restaurant – especially when the pasta is freshly prepared. A good benchmark is usually the quality of an establishment’s lasagne but, alas, this also was not available. I settled for the spaghetti carbonara with crispy pancetta, free-range eggs and parmesan. With a touch of pepper and sprinkle of salt, it was a delightful dish.

Pizza options are plentiful but the most enticing — boasting artichokes, asparagus, olives, mushrooms, red peppers and confit tomatoes - was unavailable, adding to my growing annoyance. The gorgonzola, avocado and garlic pizza was perfectly acceptable but left us slightly disappointed, despite being avid lovers of gorgonzola.

The saving grace — and my first choice in dessert options — was the beautifully plated vanilla panna cotta served with figs, honeycomb, honey gel and micro basil. A drawback was that the figs weren’t fresh but the other elements worked wonderfully with the tender vanilla of the creamy panna, which was just sweet enough.

Sotto Sopra Panna Cotta.
Sotto Sopra Panna Cotta.
Image: Supplied

While the prices are certainly an indication of Martens’s ambition to compete with the best in the world, at the moment the restaurant lacks the edge to make this a reality. However, I love the space and will happily return. Hopefully, they will find their groove after a month or two and truly manage to shake things up. I will be happy to be proved wrong.

Sotto Sopra, at 21 Keyes Avenue, Rosebank, is open from Monday to Thursday from noon to 10pm and Friday to Sunday from noon to 11pm.

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