Winter rain was pouring down hard and flooding intersections early on a recent Tuesday evening, as a friend and I sat sullenly trying to decide where to dine. A combination of bad weather and a desire to eat early in the evening meant only one thing: our chances of grabbing a level table at any popular restaurant were vastly improved. So we stood up with the same wild expression and shouted in unison, “Let’s try I Sodi!”
For 14 years, Rita Sodi’s eponymous restaurant has been one of the toughest tickets in the West Village. Sodi – who grew up on a farm north of Florence and was once a Calvin Klein executive – has pursued projects like Via Carota and now, the Commerce Inn, both in partnership with his wife Jody Williams. But I Sodi, his first restaurant, remains totally his own, perhaps the only place in town that perfectly mimics every aspect of a restaurant in Tuscany.
Set amongst the bustling gay bars, tea rooms, sex shops and haberdasheries of Christopher Street, I Sodi is a narrow, cream-coloured room with a bar to one side and a row of tables with russet leather banquettes the other. Behind the bar, backlit bottles create a welcoming glow and the place looks European. I Sodi successfully conjures up an Italian osteria, which feels like a tavern frequented by locals that puts equal emphasis on local foods and wines.
We burst into the vestibule, shaking off the rain, and were ushered to a pair of walk-in bar seats. Looking through the menu, I noted that it kept the traditional three-course progression of antipasti, primi and secondi with six to 10 selections per category. Although the menu was shorter at first, the staple dishes perpetually remain, reflecting the terroir of Tuscany with a subtle nod to New York through its selective use of local ingredients.
The best starter is Antipasto Toscano ($29), which easily feeds a group of two or more. It’s a massive platter of five canned meats and three cheeses, served with a crispy, fine-textured loaf of bread still warm – incredibly salt-free as bread tends to be in Tuscany, the result supposed local resistance to a 16th century salt tax imposed by a pope. Two of the selections were actually from Tuscany: a tangy salami and a sheep’s milk pecorino, both salty enough to accompany the bread.
Although they originate from different regions of Italy, the other components are also likely to be in the arsenal of any Tuscan restaurant: prosciutto di Parma 30 months; fennel salami with a hint of liquorice; cacciatorini, a “hunter’s salami” small enough to fit in the pocket of a hunting jacket; crumbly parmigiana; and taleggio – slightly watery and aged to a slight virtuous stench.
We also indulged in the ribollita ($16), a vegetable and bean soup served in every hilltop Tuscan town. Thickened with stale bread to the consistency of porridge, it was pure comfort as the rain beat down and we could see the tops of black umbrellas swinging past the windows. Yes, there are other starters, including mixed green salads with cheese, preserved meats like wagyu bresaola and prosciutto served with “local burrata” – displaying its New York origins and more spongy taste and milky than its imported Italian counterpart (perhaps because it’s fresher).
After the antipasti, my friend and I went for menu items that have remained the same over the years, because the whole point of visiting your local osteria, as I have been doing at I Sodi since the place opened, is to taste familiar foods and wines. When a primi contains fresh porcini mushrooms, take it. Maltagliati ($33) are sheets of pasta cut into random shapes (the names mean “poorly cut”) and are smothered in a thick stew of oxtail and porcini mushrooms – the first shredded to sauce thickener status that also imparts a meaty flavor, while contrasting with the slippery, woody mushrooms.
Another thing I usually order, but not on this occasion, is the spinach and ricotta ravioli ($23). Although the same similarly stuffed pasta can be found in many parts of Italy, in Tuscany the simple sauce is usually sage leaves picked from roadside bushes gently cooked in butter. I couldn’t find a richer version than I Sodi, where the chefs churn the butter themselves.
We finally arrived at the secondi, a term sometimes mistranslated as “main course”, which is really just a simple portion of game, poultry or fish.
In Tuscany, chefs cook almost anything “en porchetta,” which means wrapped around a garnish of fresh herbs and roasted, resulting in a crispy skin and zesty interior. Anyone who has visited Tuscany will remember the porchetta trucks parked on winding country roads, where a delicious thick slice of roast pork with herbs like fennel and rosemary escaping, is laid on an oblong roll with no filling – while cooking juices saturate the sandwich.
I Sodi’s contribution to the genre is a fabulous rabbit porchetta ($31), in which the composed pale meat is covered with a seamless slice of pancetta, mimicking the crunch and thickness of pork skin. A nice helping of chopped spinach pops to the side, like a bush the rabbit may have jumped out of.
By then we too were drunk and had indulged in a few glasses of rosso Montalcino ($18 each). From the rolling, sunflower-covered hills west of Florence, it’s a younger, cheaper, and nearly as good sibling to Brunello, sometimes derived from the same grapes.
As we sat rubbing our stomachs we decided not to order dessert – although if we had our choice would have been the panna cotta, the wavy white pudding topped with a dollop of jams of fruits. It tastes different here than in Italy, but just as good due to the terroir imparted by New York milk.