Chef Rita Sodi Brings Real Tuscan Cuisine (and Olive Oil) to New York

"I have to keep an open mind, because always something new can be interesting."

Chef Rita Sodi at I Sodi - photo Brent Herrig

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

If I were the romantic, hyper-nostalgic type, I might ruminate on the New York so many of us are too young to have known, where Italian restaurants were run by Italians doing the food of their regional homeland, obsessive to the point of rageful pride. Yes, that kind of food still exists in quiet, close quarters, but as Manhattan restaurants teem with concepts and celebrity chef names, they're harder and harder to find.

But in a thin, unassuming slice of Christopher Street, Chef Rita Sodi is holding down the fort. She opened her stunning I Sodi in 2008, sticking loyally to the food she grew up with in her native Mugello region of northern Tuscany. Her much-beloved meat sauce takes four hours to make and she imports her own olive oil from home. And while she has all the flavors and kind of cuisine New York offers at her doorstep, she's happy to keep things that way. For now.

Chef Rita Sodi at I Sodi - photo Brent Herrig

Your restaurant is clearly not a result of a "concept" or business model. What was the planning process like? I made this all about my food—there's nothing fancy about this place. This is the food I grew up with; the tortelli my mother used to make every Sunday, and when I taste them I go back to when I was little. Every time I go into the kitchen and we're making meat sauce, I'm so comfortable. I want to share it with people because I think it's so simple and beautiful. You just have to make sure people taste the ingredients, that's it. Don't cover anything. If it's tortelli and meat sauce, leave it alone. That's what I'm trying to do here.

Did you have to adapt your mother's recipes a bit? I just doubled and tripled until we found the right size. Everything else is the same; the meat sauce cooks for half a day, and we hand chop all the vegetables. At the beginning I tried to make the vegetables with the food processor, but it took out all the water from inside the vegetables, so I did it once and that was it. I invented myself; I'm not really a chef, I'm just doing my mother's food in this case.

Tortelli and Meat Sauce at I Sodi - photo Brent Herrig

Housemade potato tortelli with meat sauce.

Was it at all about creating a sense of home for you here? It was more like I try to make my dining room an extension of my home in a certain way. Food has always been important to Italian people; sitting at a table and having a meal has always been a big thing, with family getting together and talking and spending time. So what I try to do here is the same; the experience of simple food where people just get together and enjoy it.

How are you pushing yourself to grow? It's about seeing and trying to understand ingredients in my way. My way is "simplicity," trying to take out the flavor and put stuff together. Like, now I'm doing what we call cacciucco. Normally the word is for fish stew, like cacciucco di pesce, but now we do cacciucco dell' aia; the aia is the backyard of your farm where the animals go around, so I have chicken, rabbit, pork, beef, everything. I do the pasta now with a little bit of lemon; I don't like a lot of acidity in my food, but when I mix all these things together I like the acidity, and I make the pasta and spray just a little bit of lemon before I toss the pasta with the sauce. This is how I take on myself.

Pollo Frito at I Sodi - photo Brent Herrig

Pollo frito: fried chicken with fried fennel and fried bread.

Do you feel you're reshaping the idea of Italian cuisine in New York? I have people that come here and they're very disappointed, because they think they'll find what they find in any other Italian restaurant in New York, and they don't, because I'm doing my Italian stuff. They're a little bit disappointed. Fortunately, when they start to eat they're okay. But in the beginning they're all, "Where's the marinara?" Sunday I had these people come in that wanted spaghetti alle vongole, and I don't do vongole in the winter because I do all seasonal food; now I have polenta and very warming things. And they were very, very disappointed. And we were like, "Sorry, if you come in the summertime I have it." That's the way.

Why New York? Because I used to come here for a long time for work, and I was here all the time and I said, why not? It's very challenging. I didn't know at the time how crazy the idea was; that's why I say I'm so stupid, because sometimes you don't think enough, you just do it. If I didn't have a clear idea of what I was going to make for food and a clear idea of what I wanted to do, I would not still be here. The struggle was about making a restaurant and a kitchen that would have the food come out the way I make it.

Olive oil at I Sodi - photo Brent Herrig

Rita's olive oil.

Why bring over your own olive oil? Because years ago only a few shops had real freshly presses Tuscan olive oils. And still they didn't even have the current season; they had two seasons before. And it's still good, but if you don't try the fresh pressed you don't understand the difference. And I'm from Tuscany—we're a little bit crazy about our olive oil.

Does it change from year to year? It's like wine, there are good and bad seasons. My current oil is not the best season ever because it was very hot in the summer and then it had to rain a lot, so there was quantity, but not quality. This is a little bit mellow. The best year is when you feel spice; when at the end it feels spicy, so that when you eat a lot it's like eating red pepper, more or less. That's when it's good. I get it in December and it's cloudy and bright, bright green. If you look at the bottle now it's still green but it's lost the cloudiness, so the freshness.

How are you looking to expand your style, since you're in a melting pot of a city? Maybe in a few years I'll be making this food with another culture's ingredients, because you grow. Here you can open your mind to more, to like some other stuff. But you have to be good and find something you can match with your food. I never liked avocado before, and now I really like avocado. So now I'm thinking that, maybe, in some way, I can put it together in my food. It has to be smart, so I don't know. I have to keep an open mind, because always something new can be interesting.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.

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