La Bocca Itaewon Restaurant Story by Lauren Grasch


Today I have a special for you. Here is a story on La Bocca by Lauren Grasch. She is a foodie from NYC and I think she did a great piece on the restaurant. Here are some pictures of the food as well.

I hope that Lauren will continue to contribute to Seouleats.


P.S. Here is the full version.

Imagine that you are an Italian chef thousands of miles away from home, visiting Seoul to see the World Cup in 2002. You discovered much to your dismay, that you cannot find your favorite cuisine. This cuisine represents your heritage, and your culture. This cuisine is in your blood.

While most people would enjoy the rest of their stay, eat plenty of other foods that Seoul has to offer, this wasn't the case for this chef. In fact, instead of bidding "Ciao" to Seoul, Santino Sortino did just the opposite. He decided that Seoul deserved to experience and revel in the traditional Italian food that was such a huge part of his life, and this was the beginning of Sortino’s Italian "empire" in Seoul.

Santino Sortino was born in Milan, Italy and while most boys his age were obsessing over comic books, he was studying recipes in cookbooks. Recently, over coffee at La Bocca, Sortino and I spoke about his passion for Italian food and cooking. “My dad taught me everything,” he responded when I asked him how he learned to cook. In fact, he could still remember the first dish that he prepared as a child, and a smile spread across his face without a moment's hesitation as he answered, “tortellini alla panna”, tortellini in cream sauce.

After moving to Seoul from Vancouver, (his family moved from Italy to Canada when he was 6 years old), his first job was at the Peninsula Hotel where he was the executive chef at their Italian restaurant. He immediately received praise from the patrons and soon he began to think about opening his own Italian restaurant. The parents of one of his Korean friends in Seoul showed interest and in 2006, Sortino's opened its doors in Itaewon.

Sortino's is a family style trattoria serving up a variety of Italian dishes, but they are best known for their authentic thin crust pizza. In 2007 Sortino opened his second restaurant, Up at the Villa which is located across the street from Sortino’s, and is an upscale Italian eatery that is frequented by Seoul's corporate clientele. Sortino's most recent endeavor is a café simply named La Bocca, meaning "Mouth”, which had its debut in mid-December. La Bocca is owned by his Uncle, Saro Sortino, (his father's brother) and by his wife, Sonya.

Saro Sortino also has a long culinary history. He was born and raised in Sicily, Italy and then moved to Milan with his mother where he attended a trade school that offered culinary training. When he was sixteen years old, his family moved to Vancouver, Canada.

Saro and his brother Carmelo Sortino opened up Carmelo's Pastry Shop where Saro worked for many years. Eventually, he sold his share of the shop and returned to Italy, where he worked in a number of restaurants including the Grand Hyatt.

In October of 2008, Sortino invited Saro to help open La Bocca. Instead of merely assisting his nephew with the café, Saro stayed on as the Head Pastry Chef. Saro's traditional Italian pastries and his modern take on some old favorites are sure to impress and they are some of most scrumptious treats I have savored since living and traveling around Italy years ago. His sweet confections grace the beautiful glass enclosed display case in front of the café. I can never leave without gazing longingly for just one more homemade treat as I pay my bill.

The moment I step through the door at La Bocca I feel like I've escaped Seoul's organized chaos. I take in my new environment, and notice the daffodil hued ceilings. Next, my gaze falls on the brick walls that give the space a cozier, older feel that is unique amongst the slew of Itaewon restaurants. Large rectangular windows flood the café with sunlight and dark wooden tables and navy blue banquettes give the atmosphere a sophisticated feel without being pretentious.

While the menu has many options, the paninis are the main focus here along with the desserts which have their own menu. Sortino imports many of his ingredients from Italy which means that Seoul is receiving some of Italy’s best produce including fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, salami, prosciutto, and a number of other mouth watering delicacies. Most of these are available to buy at the café.

One evening, as I left La Bocca, after savoring another delicious panino, a salad of fresh greens and one of Saro’s delectable desserts, my friends and I heard the staff bid farewell to us with an authentic, “Buona Sera!”

If you haven't yet been spoiled by La Bocca's fresh imported cheeses and meats, house-made Italian breads, and exquisite Italian desserts I urge you to go; in fact go now.

When Sortino thought about his third culinary creation he wanted a place where people could enjoy wonderful, yet casual Italian fare that is popular amongst Italians. Sortino has definitely achieved his dream of “creating an oasis away from Seoul.”

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