Restaurant Review: Sorella, Hartford
The restaurant's opulent version of fettucine carbonara.
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
Moving with the finesse and fancy footwork of a fencer or lightweight boxer, the young chef quick-steps right, left, forward and back as he maneuvers the long-handled paddle he uses to position four pizzas in a woodburning oven, where temperatures are meticulously controlled to vary from 900-1,000 degrees, at the top, to 750 at lower levels.
“Now I’m going to give this one a nice char,” he says, and we watch as he raises, lowers and slides out the most authentic, perfectly charred Neapolitan-style pizza Margarita in downtown Hartford. The crust is paper-thin in the middle puffing up into a rolled edge so crisp it elicits an audible crunch when cut with a sharp knife. Made with strictly authentic ingredients—the venerable Caputo company’s finest 00 flour imported from Italy, Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di buffala and sea salt—Sorella’s Margarita is one of the state’s purest renditions of a beloved classic.
A tall order for a new restaurant, but this one is owned and operated by Billy Carbone and Dan Keller, both consummate pros whose popular restaurant Dish is across the street, so Sorella (sister in Italian) always has the expertise of big brother close at hand.
Does Hartford need another Italian pizza-plus restaurant? The answer is yes if the plus is as good as the pizza. At Sorella, the menu is impressively extensive, affordable and intriguing. There are dozens of choices. Classics. Classics-with-a-trendy-twist. Bold, subtle, simple, complex. Everything is neatly labeled or categorized: Carne, Formaggio, Verdure, Mare, Pasta, Pizza. Primi, Secondi and Alti (i.e., “whatnot”). This makes it easy to compose a traditional Italian meal if you so choose. It also makes it easy to order with wild abandon driven only by inclination.
I consult my dining companions and we plot our strategy. Everybody gets a favorite, everybody gets to share. We order in flights of two, three or four small plates at a time. There are only three secondi so we order all three.
As haphazard as the scheme may sound, it turns out to be hedonistically exhilarating, largely because almost everything we sample is a riff on delicious. For our opening salvo we choose small plates of baby artichokes, semolina-fried oysters and black-truffled chicken liver mousse. The artichokes, instead of being roasted, sautéed or deep-fried, have been gently poached. Tender as love, they’re sprinkled with Pecorino and tiny young leaves of fresh mint. Roasted cauliflower, too, is a brilliant interplay of unlikely flavors—golden raisins, anchovy and chili flakes. Who says cauliflower has to be bland?
Breaded with semolina for extra crispness, fried oysters arrive piping hot on a bed of ice-cold citrus-marinated sliced fennel. The flavor combination works well but the temperatures cancel each other out. Within minutes everything is room temperature. I’d prefer my fried oysters on a hot plate with fennel salad on the side.
A beet salad gets everything right. Cubed roasted beets arrive drenched with dark, sweet, dense vincotto syrup, garnished with whole pistachios and salty, nutty ricotta salata. Grilled baby octopus, with a nice smoky char and cumin-scented chermoula sauce, is served at the same time and goes beautifully with the beets.
And who could resist veal sweetbreads on the alti menu for $8? Two pieces of sautéed sweetbread, gently crisp on the outside, velvety within (each large enough to cut in half and share), arrive with cipollini onions and vincotto. For eight bucks, that’s a lot of luxe.
But Sorella loves largesse. The fettucine carbonara we order turns out to be far more opulent than the simple (but good) bacon-and-egg affair I occasionally whip up for unexpected guests. Sorella’s carbonara is an elaborate mélange involving guanciale, Parmigiano-Reggiano, speck and tiny green peas. Somehow these extraneous ingredients blend into a sybaritic whole.
Secondi offerings, larger by definition, are more straightforward. Meat, fish and chicken are dutifully on offer. Grilled swordfish, notably fresh, sails in with an Italian passport of young broccoli rabe. Good but not remarkable. Hanger steak, perfectly prepared medium-rare, is tender and flavorful thanks to a tangy herb marinade. (Not sure what to make of the huge bouquet of watercress it wears as a topknot, we decide to be grateful for large favors.) Chicken al mattone replicates in look and taste an age-old Italian recipe that calls for splitting a small bird, opening it out like a book, placing it in a heavy iron pan, and flattening it with a second heavy iron pan, a brick or in modern times a ceramic mattone.
To its credit, Sorella does not make a fetish of authenticity. Antique recipes are often the product of making do in hard times. But tradition has much to recommend it and Sorella is comfortable with the genre—enough so to doodle with it, especially when it comes to small plates.
When it comes to dessert, anything goes. Brioche gelato sandwiches arrive looking like three good-sized sliders, each puff of pastry filled with a different flavor—vanilla bean, dark chocolate and zabaglione. Affogato is a deconstructed ultra-sophisticated ice cream sundae consisting of cherry amarone gelato, toasted almonds, chocolate sauce and a jigger of hot espresso to pour over it all. There’s more, lots more—ricotta pie, banana Nutella panini, tiramisu—and, whatever you order, there will be a lot of it.
Presentation is not Sorella’s strong point, nor is decor, although with its wall of charming old family portraits, the place is infinitely more attractive than when Zuma was housed there. You could say it lacks POW! appeal, but the smart crowd couldn’t care less. They’re here for an old-fashioned Italian dining experience. Mangia, mangia.
901 Main St., Hartford, 860/244-9084, sorellahartford.com
Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday 4 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $9, pasta $12 to $18, pizza $10 to $14, entrées $18 to $24, desserts $7 to $8.