Welcome to On Deck, a new series where chefs share their heart and soul on a new, upcoming project in Los Angeles. Here now, the ever humble Steve Samson, who's been a co-chef and founder at Sotto for almost five years.
It seems like a great time to be Steve Samson. Then again, Steve Samson will always tell you that it’s a great time to be Steve Samson.
The chef/owner of South Beverly Hills' four and a half-year old Sotto doesn’t say such things out of a sense of ego. It’s more unbridled enthusiasm and a perpetually casual demeanor, partnered with a sense of hospitality that genuinely seems to make Samson smile. "I’m not the type of guy to say no to anyone," he says almost in a half-shrug, but unlike many of the burned-out cooks still working a grill, that attitude hasn't run him over.
Maybe it’s the way that Sotto has come to be perceived in the greater L.A. restaurant landscape. More than just a neighborhood spot but not quite an impossible-to-get-into destination, the downstairs Southern Italian joint on Pico has fallen into a happy middle where returning guests get remembered by name and newcomers might hug their waiter on the way out.
Sotto has also become something of a hang for restaurant industry types. On any given night, you’ll find bartenders mixing it up with other bartenders, line cooks getting a rare break from working their own stations at other restaurants, and perhaps Bill Chait himself (the Sprout restaurant group head who, like most of the city’s shining restaurant gems, helped work the financing to get Sotto off the ground) occupying a corner table.
But what’s really keeping Samson upbeat lately is his newest concept, a high-volume dinner spot Downtown that’s tentatively titled Rossoblu, a nod to Bologna, Italy’s beloved soccer club. There’s no official timetable for opening — the place will be, after all, about twice the size of Sotto, and requires a build-out by The Marshall Group — but would ideally arrive around the end of the year. And, if you can believe it, Rossoblu isn't heading for the Arts District.
Samson won’t actually say where he’s landing Rossoblu, but still peeks out a smile at the thought of turning Bolognese festival fare into a working hometown restaurant. "Honestly, I wanted to go back to the start," the L.A. native says, "I wanted to cook the food that I grew up eating, that caused me to fall in love with Italian food in the first place."
I wanted to cook the food ... that caused me to fall in love with Italian food in the first place.
Samson’s mother is from Italy’s Emilia-Romanga region, and he spent summers with his grandparents outside of Bologna, eating at the small festivals that pop up out of nowhere. The food at Rossoblu will be similarly traditional, the kind of spot-on recreations that come from a lifetime of hands-on learning. And while Sotto skews as a regional Italian restaurant, with its Neapolitan pizzas and fresh Southern takes, Samson has plans for Rossoblu to be hyper-focused.
"I think it's going to be maybe even more regional than Sotto. We’re going to do a salumi program, that’s really important to me. My mom is from the mountains, and she says that growing up my grandfather used to make his own salami all the time. It’s just how you ate. Unfortunately, he didn’t teach me any of it," he adds with a laugh.
But still, there’s no trace of concern on Samson’s face, even as he talks about scaling up. "Hopefully people like it, hopefully it resonates with people, and I’m able to do that on a large scale. And that’s one thing that really scares me. It’s one thing to watch my nonna roll out pasta on the kitchen table for her family, it’s another to bring that to hundreds of people a day."
It’s a good problem to have, and the chef knows that. It’s precisely why he’s so happy to be exactly where he is in life: one well-received restaurant under his wing, another about to take flight Downtown. Add in a wife, kids, and a reputation as one of the industry’s good guys, and there’s a lot to be thankful for.
"It’s ironic, isn’t it? That after almost 20 years of cooking, now’s the time where I’m going to have what I hope will be my dream restaurant. And for the first time ever, there’s a place I’d rather be than at my restaurant. I’m always going to want to be at home with my kids."