How Rita Sodi and Jody Williams Created Some of New York's Most Beloved Dining Spaces
As business owners, they think of themselves as caretakers of their team, but also of the property.
If you’ve ever been to Via Carota, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’ perpetually packed Italian restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and had to use the restroom, you’ve probably noticed a certain bronze horse head mounted on the wall across from the toilet. It’s a bag hook, and it’s one of many playful, practical fixtures that fill the six establishments in the couple’s purview.
There’s I Sodi, the Tuscan place that Sodi, a native of that region, opened 10 years ago on Christopher Street (a few blocks away from that equine fixture), after leaving the fashion industry for a new career as a restaurateur and chef. Three years later, Williams, a self-taught chef from California who’d earned her stripes and critical acclaim at downtown Manhattan institutions like il Buco, Giorgione, and Morandi, opened Buvette, what she calls a “gastrothèque” (or Gallic-ish bistro-bar), on nearby Grove Street. Two international outposts of Buvette have followed: one in Paris, the other in Tokyo. Arriving in 2014 a few feet away, Via Carota was their first joint venture, and just across the same street, they recently unveiled Pisellino, an all-day café where neighbors can rub elbows while enjoying a morning espresso or an evening cocktail and an assortment of traditional Italian bites.
People love to talk about I Sodi’s lasagna, how it’s unrivaled in the city. Or they’ll want you to know they’ve had the “petit burger” at Buvette, a well-kept secret tucked between a spliced slab of onion focaccia. They continue to debate which of the salads at Via Carota is the perfect salad. What they won’t tell you is that each of Sodi and Williams’ dining rooms transports you to an enveloping, self-contained world, one that’s simultaneously homey and escapist. Enter these spaces and the city outside falls away—you feel like you’re on holiday.
That’s not an easy trick to pull off. It demands the same level of care and skill needed to nail a mound of cacio e pepe or steak tartare; the only way it works is if you can’t see the effort required. The finished product should seem like “it’s always been there,” Sodi says. “You open the door and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that before. How long has it been there?’ That’s our goal.” It’s easily taken for granted, but it’s what makes people keep coming back.
“The truth is we have a list of places we want to go to, and if they don’t exist, we want to make them,” Williams says. It may begin with an idea, but it’s the space that ultimately dictates which idea will take root; each concept is a complete vision in which the culinary and aesthetic points of view are in alignment. “I think when you have one author writing the first chapter, so to speak, the design of the room, and the same author is in the kitchen writing it, you have this unique thing,” Williams says. Sodi believes you can’t appreciate the soul of the dish in front of you if you don’t have a complementary atmosphere to eat it in. “It has to be everything,” she says. “It would take something out of the food.”
The two share a respect for raw materials that applies to both the seasonal produce being prepared in the kitchen and the reclaimed wood on the floor of the dining room.
Despite owning and running multiple businesses, they continue to insist on handpicking every table, every chair, every hook. Williams is a bit of a pack rat and can’t stay away from an antiques shop or flea market. Take that surprising bathroom fixture: She found it in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, one afternoon, “just going for a walk, and there was this horse.” She asked Sodi if they could buy it, accustomed to her usual “No, no, no” response. But they bought it, “’cause I buy a lot of junk,” Williams adds. It’s got company at the restaurant: “You’ll look around and you’ll see a couple horse heads, not overdone.” There’s a crow and boar, too. “We had to get a boar because it’s Florence, right?” Williams is referring to the Florentine Il Porcellino, a famous bronze boar fountain in the Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, and to the fact that Via Carota is named for the street on which Sodi’s residence is located in that city. Items from the house are hiding in plain sight throughout the restaurant—the 15th-century knocker on the front door is one of many examples.
“We’ve got pieces in storage that are so incredible we’ll build restaurants around them,” Williams says. Via Carota was built around one—a Welsh meat locker she’d found years ago. Before Pisellino’s opening, a shipment of Sodi’s own furniture from Italy showed up, providing additional options for what they consider, as Williams puts it, “another canvas for us to collaborate on and paint.” At that point, it was still “dust and dirt.” The following week, the mosaic floor they’d had custom-made by a company in Arkansas that specializes in historical tile was installed, and then, eventually, the lighting fixtures made by their friend and longtime collaborator Warren Muller in Philadelphia went up. Later, personal touches like a bronze baby boar were added.
“Everything is important to us because we live and work in these places.” Williams says. As business owners, she and Sodi think of themselves as caretakers of their team, but also of the property. “We feel … like the space is a friend or living,” she says, and applies “the same standard we have at home.” She means it, admitting: “Our employees, if they’re handling a wretched-looking broom, we think, ‘Oh my God, can you imagine if that was in our house?’ We’d run out the door!” Accordingly, each of their restaurants is outfitted with a Miele vacuum, which is what they use at home.
Is there any part of the process they trust someone else to oversee? Not really. But they acknowledge that a good restaurant is a collaboration of many hands. “We relinquish control the day we open the restaurant,” Williams says. “The public will say, ‘This is what this place is for me. This is what I feel.’” The point is that it makes them feel, and it makes them feel good—good enough to return over and over again.
At Via Carota, menus stay in cubbies on the backs of chairs. “This is about functionality as an honest sense,” Williams says. “It’s important in a restaurant where there are layers of activity and things to get done. We fit things together like a puzzle.”
Rooms with a View
When Sodi and Williams design a space, they think about “perspectives and landscapes within the restaurant.” The result: No matter where guests may sit, when they turn and look, there’s something beautiful in sight.
The Past is Present
Sodi and Williams collect vintage items that evoke a sense of nostalgia. “Maybe you recognize something that your grandmother has or that was part of your history,” says Williams. “It is a powerful way to connect us all.”
“We don’t use a color palette—there’s a purposeful absence of color,” Williams says. Instead, the couple uses the natural tones of woods, porcelains, and marbles. “But [when] the food comes in, that’s when you see colors!”