News that chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi were collaborating on a new project electrified the West Village. A couple in real life, the two run Buvette and I Sodi, respectively, easily among the best restaurants in the neighborhood. Both chefs are known as hard-working perfectionists who rarely go in for publicity-seeking, so work on the new place has proceeded under a near news blackout. The space is only a block east of Buvette, and one street over from I Sodi. Dubbed Via Carota ("Carrot Street") after a thoroughfare in the small Tuscan town where Sodi grew up, the place is scheduled to open in September. Last week I visited both establishments on a single day to get a feel for what the new spot might be like.
Many became aware of Jody Williams 11 years ago when she worked the wood-burning oven at Giorgione on Spring Street as a Naples-style pizza pioneer. She showed up next on Greenwich Avenue, where she proceeded in a Central and Southern Italian vein at Morandi, and later, wine bar Gottino, which had a limited menu of small dishes, cheeses, and charcuterie. So it came as something of a surprise when she next opened Buvette, specializing in short-dish French fare. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the small, serpentine place is thronged at all hours with neighborhood types who relish the rich and succinct quality of the food, quaint and rustic surroundings, well-chosen wine list, and excellent pastries.
A companion and I sat on backless stools at a small table between the bar/pastry counter and the back room, which is up a step or two and leads to a garden. We lunched on a superb, caper-dotted octopus salad ($15), a collection of tentacles interspersed with crunchy celery in a dressing driven by olive oil with only a hint of tartness.
A shared tartine ($9) featured two toasts heaped with the thorny green vegetable stewed to a fare-thee-well, and we also had a miniature version of croque madame ($13): a single thick slice of bread annealed with browned gruyere, topped with a fried egg and a wad of cured ham. Though the dishes at Buvette tend to be small, the richness means that three items shared between two people is plenty.
Breakfast offers a series of egg-driven bowls — one especially pleasing choice also contains a waffle and syrup mixed together with the runny eggs — plus marmalade toasts, muesli, yogurt and fruit, and breakfast pastries. Dinner remains resolutely small dish, and more wine-bar-ey, with a handful of classics like coq-au-vin, the aforementioned tartines, a few fish dishes, and a general appreciation of nicely cooked vegetables as centers of attention.
The limited nature of Buvette's menus is a joy, and most regulars settle on a few favorites at their chosen hour of the day, and stick with them. My companion and I finished up with an exemplary piece of tarte tatin ($8), which emphasized thick slices of caramelized apple, a dearth of puff pastry, and a cloud of crème fraiche on top. We left feeling well satisfied.
I Sodi is the city's most authentic Tuscan restaurant, patronized by avid regulars and little known outside its immediate neighborhood. Even the façade is low-key, and the chef — once a Calvin Klein executive, and sometime resident of Tuscany — is virtually always at work in the kitchen. The food at the restaurant is superb on a regular basis, but never particularly inventive or experimental. Hence one of its appeals. The space consists of eight or so reserved tables along one wall, a more impromptu seating area along the bar (which has a full liquor license), and three further tables in the rippled front window, at which my fellow diner and I sat around sunset.
From a menu that makes eating the regular three-course Italian meal easy, we began with an antipasto platter (for one, $20) which entailed substantial quantities of prosciutto, fennel salami, Tuscan salami, and smaller-bore cacciatorini on a platter with sticks of parmigiano, pecorino, and piave cheese punctuated with chestnut honey. (The bread basket contained two types of bread, along with a few jumbo green olives and a saucer of wonderful olive oil, which sometimes comes from Sodi's farm north of Florence.)
Next came a shared bowl of classic spinach and ricotta ravioli ($21, full order) in a rich butter sauce flavored with fresh sage — you can't get more Tuscan than that.
Also extremely Tuscan was an entrée of rabbit served porchetta-style ($29), larded with pancetta in a roll and bound with its own skin. Absolutely delicious! It appears with masses of chopped spinach cooked plainly with garlic — which offsets the saltiness of the bunny — but we couldn't help ordering a special side that evening of fried artichokes ($15).
What arrived took our breath away — a big oblong bowl of pieces shredded so that each had a crunchy tendril of leaf and a lobe of heart, making for both softness and crispness all at once. Also on the bill of fare that evening was a special of artichoke lasagna (which I'd seen on the menu as a special years earlier), suggesting that Sodi is experimenting with carciofi in earnest in preparation for Via Carota.
A parallel passion of Williams' is octopus, as we'd experienced with the octopus salad at Buvette. At Morandi, she matched the ropey tentacles with mint and fava beans, for a distinctly Roman presentation, and it wouldn't be out of place — given Sodi's fried artichokes, sometimes known as Jewish Roman artichokes — to suggest the menu at Via Carota may have more of a Roman and even southern Italian cast to it. Will there be pizzas on the menu, recalling Williams' early days at Giorgione? My guess is no. But we can certainly expect plenty of pastries, adding another course to the menu virtually non-existent at I Sodi. (There are really no desserts at I Sodi, or indeed, throughout much of Italy.)
One of the features of Buvette likely to remain intact is the small-dish approach, with flexible meal schemes. The build-out of the space currently visible through the front door shows a bar and counter running the length of the long room on the back wall, where short dishes and pastries may be displayed in the current style of Buvette.
But one thing for sure, there will be a brilliant wine list, with bottles from the length of the Italian boot, and maybe some French stuff, too. And breakfast is a possibility, since that meal extends the profit-making potential of any restaurant, and Villagers already expect to linger over that meal at Buvette. And another new thing at Via Carota — hopefully, at least — will be more comfort, both in space and in the furniture. I, for one, can't wait.
· All Coverage of Via Carota [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of Buvette [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of I Sodi [~ENY~]
· All Posts by Robert Sietsema [~ENY~]