The winter rain was coming down hard and flooding the intersections early on a recent Tuesday evening, as a friend and I sat glumly trying to decide where to go for dinner. A combination of inclement weather and a desire to eat early in the evening meant only one thing: our chances of grabbing a walk-in table at any popular restaurant were vastly improved. So we jumped 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 most difficult tickets in the West Village. Sodi — who grew up on a farm north of Florence and was once a Calvin Klein executive — has gone on to projects like Via Carota and now, the Commerce Inn, both in partnership with wife Jody Williams. But I Sodi, her first restaurant, remains totally her own, perhaps the only place in town that perfectly mimics all aspects of a restaurant in Tuscany.
Located among Christopher Street’s thrumming gay bars, tea shops, sex boutiques, and haberdasheries, I Sodi is a narrow cream-colored room with a bar on one side and row of tables with russet leather banquettes on the other. Behind the bar, backlit bottles create a welcoming glow, and the place does look European. I Sodi successfully evokes an Italian osteria, which is something like a tavern frequented by locals that places equal emphasis on foods and wines of the region.
We burst into the vestibule, shaking off the rain, and were ushered to a pair of bar seats reserved for walk-ins. Scanning the menu, I noted that it had preserved the traditional three-course progression of antipasti, primi, and secondi with six to 10 selections per category. Though the menu was shorter in the early days, the core dishes perpetually remain, reflecting the terroir of Tuscany with a subtle nod to New York City through its select use of local ingredients.
The best starter is antipasto Toscano ($29), which easily feeds a party of two or more. It’s a massive platter of five preserved meats and three cheeses, served with a still-warm loaf of crusty, fine-textured bread — arrestingly saltless as bread tends to be in Tuscany, the supposed result of local resistance to a 16th-century salt tax imposed by a pope. Two of the selections actually came from Tuscany: a pungent salami and a sheep’s milk pecorino, both salty enough to complement the bread.
Despite originating in different regions of Italy, the further components are also likely to be found in any Tuscan restaurant’s arsenal: 30-month prosciutto di Parma; fennel salami with a licoricey kick; cacciatorini, a “hunter’s salami” small enough to be jammed in the pocket of a hunting jacket; crumbly parmigiana; and taleggio – slightly runny and aged to a mild righteous stink.
We also indulged ourselves in ribollita ($16), a soup of vegetables and beans served in every Tuscan hilltop town. Thickened with stale bread to the consistency of mush, it was pure comfort as the rain beat down and we could see the tops of black umbrellas bobbing past the windows. Yes, there are other starters, including salads greens tossed with cheese, boutiquey preserved meats like wagyu bresaola, and prosciutto served with “local burrata” — flaunting its New York origins, and more squishy and milky tasting than its imported Italian counterpart (perhaps because it’s fresher).
Following the antipasti, my friend and I went for dishes on the menu that have remained the same over the years, because the whole point of visiting your local osteria, as I have done at I Sodi since the place opened, is to enjoy familiar foods and wines. When a primi features fresh porcini, grab it. Maltagliati ($33) is sheets of pasta snipped into random shapes (the names means “badly cut”) and is inundated with a thick ragu of oxtail and porcinis — the former shredded to the status of a sauce thickener that also imparts a meaty flavor, while contrasting with the slippery and woodsy mushrooms.
Another thing I usually order, though not on this occasion, is the spinach and ricotta ravioli ($23). Though the same pasta similarly stuffed can be found in many parts of Italy, in Tuscany the simple sauce is usually sage leaves plucked from bushes by the roadside gently cooked in butter. I haven’t found a richer rendition than the one at I Sodi, where the chefs churn the butter themselves.
We finally came to the secondi, a term sometimes mistranslated as “main course,” which is really just a simple serving of game, poultry, or fish.
In Tuscany, chefs will cook nearly anything “in porchetta,” which means rolled around a filling of fresh herbs and roasted, resulting in a crisp skin and pungent interior. Anyone who has visited Tuscany will remember the porchetta trucks parked by winding country roads, where a delicious thick slice of pork roast with herbs like fennel and rosemary leaking out, will be deposited on an oblong roll with no garnish — while the drippings saturate the sandwich.
I Sodi’s contribution to the genre is a fabulous rabbit porchetta ($31), in which the pale composed meat is cloaked in a seamless slice of pancetta, mimicking the crunch and thickness of pig skin. A nice serving of chopped spinach appears on the side, like a bush the rabbit may have jumped from.
By this time we too were stuffed, and had indulged in a couple of glasses of rosso Montalcino ($18 each). From the rolling, sunflower-patched hills west of Florence, it’s a younger, cheaper, and almost as good younger sibling of Brunello, sometimes derived from the very same grapes.
As we sat rubbing our stomachs, we decided not to order dessert — though if we had, our choice would have been panna cotta, the wiggly white pudding topped with a spoonful of fruit preserves. It tastes different here than it does in Italy, but every bit as good due to the terroir imparted by New York milk.