“Tuscan” must be the most abused term in the gastro-lexicon. Originally, it referred to the cuisine of a Central Italian region where a limited number of emphatically local ingredients were used to create limited collections of antipasti, primi, and secondi for three-course meals that varied from town to town, but always maintained the same themes: olive-oil-glossed veggies plucked directly from the fields, cured pork products, pungent pecorino cheeses, fresh and dried pastas in arrestingly simple sauces, and wood-roasted meats, with nary a can of tomatoes or package of frozen vegetables in sight.
As proto-foodies returned from Tuscany, skewed imitations appeared here, often encompassing things like pizza and pesto that were alien to the region. Eventually, “Tuscan” became a buzzword for nearly any kind of Italian cooking that could be accomplished with plain ingredients and facile preparation, including invented dishes believed to share similar characteristics. As a final stage, the term was applied to mass-produced breads and canned cat food.
But there is one largely overlooked restaurant in town that has succeeded in reproducing an actual Tuscan bill of fare, such as you might find in roadside osterias near Cortona or Gaiole-in-Chianti. Founded two years ago on Christopher Street, I Sodi is named after owner Rita Sodi, a former Calvin Klein executive who came from Florence and still owns a farm north of the city. From that property flows the olive oil served in the restaurant, tinted an ethereal green and flaunting the slightly bitter edge characteristic of newly pressed oils. Sprinkled with sea salt and swabbed with selections from the bread basket, it could happily serve as your entire meal. But go easy, because you still have three full courses to plow through.
True to I Sodi’s antecedents, the menu is brief, with only four or five selections for each course, varying from week to week with the availability of fresh ingredients. There’s a typical platter of Tuscan antipasti ($17 for one, $25 for two), including prosciutto, three salamis, and three cheeses, served with orange marmalade and chestnut honey. Come fall, there’ll be chicken-liver crostini, but this being summer, don’t miss the fresh vegetable apps, including zucchini carpaccio ($10), flavored with mint and shaved Parmesan, and a tweaked Caprese salad of cubed heirloom tomatoes at the peak of ripeness tossed with bouncy buffalo-mozzarella bocconcini.
The pasta menu is similarly straightforward. Most selections are available in half portions, to facilitate the gut-busting afternoon repast still enjoyed in Tuscany. As soft as throw pillows on a well-worn couch, spinach-and-cheese ravioli ($13 half, $18 full) come with a novel “sugo al povero” (“poverty sauce”), resembling ground veal but actually composed of finely minced vegetables. Skip the artichoke lasagna (too bland!) in favor of the denser meat version. Our favorite pasta was the Roman standard spaghetti cacio e pepe, twirled in a rind of pecorino cheese and intensely peppery.
The first secondo is one of the most typical Tuscan dishes: chicken pressed under a brick, here called galletto schiacciato ($23). It’s made with a Cornish game hen, which is more like an Italian chicken than the bloated American birds. There’s also a strip steak served sliced with arugula and olive oil, and a whole grilled branzino rustically presented with roasted potatoes. To prove that everything in Tuscany is not totally predictable, there’s a wild card among the secondi, too. Recently, it was a dish called “fried chicken” ($18), making me expect Colonel Sanders to come striding in the door. The dish began with pane dorato—Florentine fingers of fried bread—which acted as an anchor for a ménage à trois that also featured bone-in poultry and french fries. In addition to the fried bread, the flavor of the olive oil used for frying also made the dish distinctively Tuscan.
Half of the relatively long wine list focuses on regional vintages, while the balance is bottles from other parts of Italy; many wines are available by the glass or quartino (quarter liter). One of the best is Villa D’Angelo Vino Nobile (glass $12, quartino $16, bottle $45), an ancient variety produced in Montepulciano, one of Italy’s most picturesque hilltop villages, its flanks festooned with olive trees and its surrounding valley with sunflowers and grapevines. The vino is saturated and semi-tannic, made from the Sangiovese grape, the region’s most distinctive. The wine lays smooth and dry on the tongue, the perfect cutter of the massive amounts of olive oil incorporated into a true Tuscan meal.
As I snatched the last excellent french fry from the plate, I wondered: If the chef made a hamburger, too, would it still taste totally Tuscan?