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Sotto Mare

Old-Fashioned Seafood in North Beach

For a City by the Bay, we really don't have as many old-fashioned seafood joints as you might expect. There are the venerable stalwarts like Tadich Grill and Swan Oyster Depot and some places at Fisherman's Wharf that tourists are more likely to visit than locals. But now North Beach has a terrific seafood bar, called Sotto Mare, Italian for "under the sea."

Sotto Mare feels like it has been in the neighborhood forever -- that's because of the timeless flea market look of mounted fish, and a jumble of paintings and knick-knacks hanging on the wall. The mix-and-match dining plates, some from venerable cruise lines of the past, also charmed us, as did the genuinely friendly staff. In addition to a long bar, there are also a few marble-topped tables for four. It's casual and fun in a way that places on Columbus Avenue rarely are. Perhaps because there is no sign out front, Sotto Mare feels like a place for those in the know.

The menu at Sotto Mare is short and sweet. Very sweet. Fresh oysters and clams on the half shell are $1 and no, that's not "happy hour" pricing. The clam chowder is just the way we like it, not too thick or goopy, but mild, and filled with potatoes and tender whole clams. In addition to the clams, oysters and clam chowder, there are seafood cocktails, cracked crab, Louis salads, and a trio of house specialties.

The Crab Louis at $19 was the most expensive thing on the menu but well worth the price. Big chunks of crab on crunchy iceberg lettuce were served with a well-balanced Louis dressing on the side.

Our favorite starter was something you rarely, if ever, see on the menu--baccala. Benita's Baccala ($7) was rich with olive oil, cooked with tomatoes and garlic. We don't know who Benita is, but we are thankful for her recipe. Scooped up with crusty French bread, it was perfect for sharing.

Under house specialties you'll find linguine with clams, grilled sand dabs ($16) and fettuccine Alfredo. When the sand dabs were brought to the table we were advised not to add anything to them and that advice proved sound. They were sautéed and seasoned with just a little salt and were simply delicious. The biggest disappointment was the pasta. We ordered a special of the evening, a mixed seafood pasta, and while perfectly al dente, the white sauce was bland and pasty.

As for wine, you'll find a handful of mostly Italian white and red wines. (Who would order Zinfandel with seafood is a mystery to us, however.) A better choice might be one of the draft beers ($5) such as Bass, Stella or Hoegaarden. There are also bottled beers including Grolsch and Peroni. Sotto Mare is a great place when you want seafood without the big price tag or the throngs of tourists. Bring some friends and leave your credit cards at home; it's cash only.

North Beach

Reservations Essential? No.