How Rita Sodi Builds Neighborhood Restaurants With Heart and Soul
Rita Sodi (right)
Ben Jay for the Village Voice
Weeks after Rita Sodi opened I Sodi (105 Christopher Street, 212-414-5774), her West Village paean to Tuscan food, in 2008, her chef quit. Sodi had never worked in a kitchen — she'd been in the fashion industry for her entire career, and had settled in New York to open a restaurant when she decided she needed a change of pace. To make matters worse, the economy was sliding, making the environment for all restaurants — let alone new restaurants — less than hospitable.
But Sodi is stubborn, and she refused to give up. So she got behind the line and, via trial by fire, learned to prep, to cook to order, and to plate. And slowly but surely, the business at I Sodi became steady, as the restaurant developed into one of the most beloved neighborhood eateries in the city. "Sometimes I look back and think, I don't know how I made it," she says. "I was crying in the kitchen. Now I'm laughing. I was nervous about everything; now everything is much easier. It's a different world now. I had to drive with all my heart. I've been lucky."
Sodi grew up in a family that put food at the forefront. "My mother, until I was 30, was always asking me, 'Did you eat? What did you eat?' I'd say, 'Mom, I ate.' And she'd say, 'No, you didn't.' I never really gave importance to that old world. For me, that was normal — everyone was eating like that." But once she started traveling extensively for her job, she realized how unique her upbringing had been, and she learned to cook so that she could have her favorite recipes on the road. She began to understand, too, that many of the so-called Italian restaurants in New York City, where she came often, weren't really cooking authentic Italian food, and she thought she might have something to add to the culinary conversation.
When the time came for her to make a career move, she considered moving from Florence, where she'd been for several years, to Milan or London. But such a shift forced her to contemplate whether she still wanted to be in the textile business at all. She gave it up in the end, and signed a lease for a Bleecker Street sliver, where she envisioned "something like my dining room," she says. "A very, very simple kitchen — nothing extravagant. Just a stove, oven, grill. My food. My way, the way I always eat it. Not fancy, but normal, with good ingredients, and straightforward. I wanted to give people what I love."
Three months after the doors opened, Sodi met Jody Williams, who owns nearby French restaurant Buvette, and the two became a couple. Williams, whom Sodi says is a veteran cook and a pro at running restaurants, helped Sodi put systems into place and tighten up the kitchen. "She was always giving me advice, telling me what to do and how to do it," says Sodi. "But I'm very stubborn, so sometimes I listen, and sometimes not. She'd say, 'You can't do this.' But I still do that, and it's been seven years now."
Above all, imbuing her restaurant with authenticity and soul was crucial to Sodi, and she worked to make it feel like her place, attracting regulars who identified with her vision and not worrying about appealing to everyone. "I had to become a place for the Village people, the neighborhood — and I did," she says. "People used to come in my place and say, 'You cook too much the spinach — it takes out the vitamins.' And I'd say, 'OK, don't eat it.' What else is there to say? I don't make my spinach differently; it's always the same. Now people don't say that anymore."
As their restaurants have grown, Sodi and Williams have come to feel responsible for preserving the close-knit vibe of the West Village, which Sodi says has changed significantly in the seven years she's lived here. "When I opened on Christopher Street, there was a sex shop around the corner," she says. "I was like, It will be fine. It's one of the oldest streets in New York City. After eight months, Rag and Bone opened in front of me. That's the way it goes. Bleecker, I like to say, is now the Madison Avenue of the Village. It's bad and good. Maybe it was better before — a little more cozy." But Sodi says her neighbors still pass by I Sodi and call through open windows, and she still has people who stop in often enough that she can recognize them by the ticket that prints in the kitchen.
A few months ago, she and Williams planted another neighborhood restaurant when they opened Via Carota (51 Grove Street) together, combining Sodi's Tuscan sensibilities with Williams's experience cooking in Emilia-Romagna and Rome. The project grew from their love of sharing a kitchen at home, and they named the restaurant for the place in Florence where they cooked together for the first time. That's not to say they agree about everything that happens in their new restaurant: "We fight a lot," says Sodi. But ultimately, Sodi says learning from Williams in this environment has taught her a lot about being a restaurateur. "Jody is a master," she says. "I look at everything she does and say, 'Oh, you do it this way.' This is really my first restaurant experience."
But the goal is the same — Sodi and Williams are working to make Via Carota a standby place with a lot of soul. "We want to share our experience," says Sodi. "That's our goal. To be a very great neighborhood restaurant."
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