Let’s cut to the chase: Is the newly reopened I Sodi at 314 Bleecker Street, at Grove Street, as good as the original, founded by Rita Sodi around the corner on Christopher Street 15 years ago? Yes, the food is still great — but more importantly, it is nearly the same. The six or so dishes presented in each of the three sections are similar to the collection offered — with a few in-kind substitutions — since the restaurant’s inception.
Take coniglio in porchetta ($31). This third course has been shining on the menu as constantly as the North Star for at least a decade, a rabbit loin assertively seasoned with rosemary and garlic, tightly wrapped with skin. Cut into thick rounds, it looks like ancient bronze coins that have tumbled from a purse. Porchetta is a treatment often seen with pork throughout Central Italy, but here a familiar recipe has been reinterpreted and refined, the bunny giving it a delicacy and wild game flair. At I Sodi, the dish is unforgettably bright and fragrant, like a walk on a Tuscan hillside through fields of sunflowers and fennel.
The chef was born in Tuscany in a small town north of Florence, and together with her spouse Jody Williams helm Via Carota on the next block of Grove in the West Village. But while that restaurant mounts a massive menu filled with Italian dishes of every size both invented and traditional, I Sodi sticks with the customary three-course progression of antipasti, primi, and secondi. And I Sodi’s central feature persists: The food tastes exactly as if you were dining in a rural roadside osteria, more so than at any other Italian restaurant in town.
Heck, it smells like an osteria the minute you walk in the door, with its plainish European décor of pebble glass room dividers that transmit light without being windows, stained wooden wainscotting, rustic beams in the ceiling, and black-and-white marble used modestly and not lavishly. While the original restaurant was tiny, with only a handful of tables and a short bar, this place holds three times the number in a main room, a second dining room newly built in back, and a garden behind that – not yet open – that was the central feature of the French bistro that was here before.
Flat or fizzy water? Both are free. The all-Italian wine list is of readable size (lots of action in the $80 range), with eight or so very good and not very expensive by-the-glass selections. I went for a Trebbiano ($16), a straw-yellow white with enough pizzazz to stand up to the richer dishes on the menu. After the waiter arrives with the wine, he recites a special or two in each category, then you’re off to the races.
The de rigueur first course has always been a charcuterie and cheese platter ($29) featuring prosciutto, three kinds of salami, and three cheeses, with a dab of rhubarb jam for dipping the cheeses. This is the classic Tuscan introduction to any meal, but my companion and I supplemented it with a special of heirloom tomatoes and purple onions dressed with a little brine to draw out the sweet juices. These tomatoes, at the peak of ripeness, are the ones you often see restaurant employees dragging away in wagons from the Union Square Greenmarket before you have the chance to buy them.
Like fools, we ordered two pastas: a Sodi classic of artichoke lasagna with what seems like one hundred layers; cutting the tower in two without toppling it is a challenge I’d willingly undergo again. The other was a tagliatelle puttanesca ($24) as good as any I’ve had before, the pasta strands hilariously long and the sauce thick and laced with plenty of capers, anchovies, and red pepper flakes, while tiny black Picholine olives add further oomph!
The rabbit porchetta came next, and it had competed for our attention with a very thick veal chop, bone-in, cooked Milanese style with a breaded exterior; and a clump of braised short rib, the bone removed, and served with spinach. Looking around the room, we saw that many diners that had ordered that rib ordered it with a side of fries.
We demurred when it came to desserts, since we were already full and toting several (recyclable) boxes of leftovers. The seven choices ran to tiramisu and chocolate mousse and other items to be expected — strictly for folks that must have dessert at every dinner. Me? I went for a cup of bitter espresso.