NYC's The Sosta offers a carb-laden haven from the gender norms that shape how we talk and think about eating.
Just past noon an any given weekday, a stream of well-dressed, fabulously-shoed women strut into The Sosta. The fast-casual pasta restaurant in Nolita is accented with millennial pink countertops, trays and a neon-pink sign illuminating the phrase, “Mangiamo, Baby.” Women (and some men) line up at the counter to order their lunchtime pastas, some balancing the pink trays topped with pink bowls to eat at marble-flecked tables and chat with colleagues or friends, others opting for the signature pink paper takeout bag to rush back to the office.
All the pasta on the menu is fresh, made by chef and co-owner Ali LaRaia (her business partner is creative director Samantha Wasser, who co-founded the vegan sensation By Chloe). LaRaia modeled the spot after Italy’s Autogrills, the quick-service gas station restaurants scattered across pasta’s motherland, known for serving excellent Italian fare and espresso, quick and cheap. Upon returning from a trip and learning that she couldn’t find a decent bowl of fresh pasta under $20, LaRaia decided to “fill a void for fresh Italian food that is accessible and affordable.” Introduced to Wasser through another female colleague, the two 30-year-old women conceptualized and opened a pasta restaurant that, more than anything, people like them would “want to spend time at.” It’s the type of place where women can gather to stuff sauce-coated spaghetti and chicken meatballs and mozzarella-topped salami sandwiches into their mouths.
The Sosta is hardly New York’s only outstanding female-run pasta spot—Lilia chef Missy Robbins’ pink peppercorn malfadini draws a steady crowd any chef would envy and Jody Williams and Rita Sodi’s Via Carota serves some of the best cacio e pepe in the city. The Sosta, though, positions itself explicitly as the opposite of a cavernous red sauce jaunt, a bright and playful haven in a male-dominated city for all people, especially women, to enjoy large quantities of pasta, bread, meat and cheese.
Unlike the small cluster of Manhattan restaurants marketed towards women, specializing in, say, pulverized fruit and vegetables, salads or other wellness-y meals, The Sosta is a place to stuff your face with bucatini. Salads, soups and zucchini noodles are also on the menu, but the concept offers a refreshing celebration of women getting together to eat copious amounts of good (good in the satisfying, not "clean eating," sense) food, the type of food not always associated with the idealized female body.
During a recent visit, Gail Simmons, who has a special malfadini and kale dish on the menu for February, encouraged me to dig my plastic fork into her pasta — “You’ve got to just get right in there; don’t feel like you have to eat it in a feminine way; I gave up on that a long time ago,” — coaching me on with a “there you go” as cheesy pasta cascaded down my chin. This is the future feminists deserve.
Even in a city as progressive as New York, female diners are often bombarded with comments about their “big appetites” — ask any female-presenting food writer — or ambition when ordering a large steak or stereotypically, and falsely, “masculine” menu items. The Sosta destigmatizes female indulgence as a private, shameful thing, a notion that’s ingrained in anyone who’s witnessed Bridget Jones gorging on ice cream under a comforter (hide your desires!).
The ignominy dates back to the 19th century, when public restaurants spread in New York City. Women, while banned from most dining rooms or only allowed in during specific hours with the company of men, wanted their own places to dine out, as respites during shopping trips or places to socialize with friends. By the 1850s, establishments “provided food conforming (or supposedly conforming) to women’s tastes: a somewhat inconsistent repertoire of light food (such as salads) and sweet, even childish treats (ice-cream),” historian Paul Freedman writes in the Journal of Social History. Across the country, men and women would be served different menus: Men would enjoy larded veal cutlets with onions, while women were served veal cutlets with fines herbes, or men would have macaroni “Italian style,” while women got “macaroni baked and plain.”
The idea that women should be delicate and light eaters—while men can succumb to hearty food in hefty portions—infantilizes women, portraying females not only as the daintier, weaker sex, but also as people who have tastes more similar to children than adults. And the presumption persists today, whether deeply ingrained in women or performed for the outside world – just look at the slew of liquid or raw-focused shops marketed towards women, while their spicy, meaty counterparts are, in most cases, pushed towards men. Several years ago at a breakfast promoting a family-friendly cracker, Giada De Laurentiis recounted a story of opening her Vegas restaurant: She’d naturally included her lemon spaghetti on the menu, a favorite recipe of hers and her viewers. Her investors and advisors, all men, pushed for the removal of the dish, considering the pasta too feminine for an audience accustomed to massive chops and aggressive seafood buffets. De Laurentiis stood firm, and her lemon spaghetti became the highest-selling pasta on her menu, proving through a plate of carbs that, no, of course there’s no such thing as “masculine” or “feminine” food, but these perceptions forced on American palates due to centuries of discrimination have created false, harmful binaries that extend far beyond what’s served on a plate.
There is nothing “baked and plain” about The Sosta’s menu. Daily made pastas, like the pumpkin-shaped zucca, are drenched in sauces like red-pepper spiked vodka cream, and twisted gemelli is tossed with a garlicky pesto. Weekend brunch brings a baked spaghetti pie, creamy spaghetti carbonara and an Instagram-friendly brunch board with cured meats and cheeses. Rainbow sprinkle-freckled cookies and a multicolored assortment of gelato are tempting if you still have room after a deep pasta bowl. Beer and wine are served on tap.
“We’re making real food for real women,” La Raia says, noting her restaurant isn’t just for women, but “inclusive of everyone.” LaRaia says that her most loyal customer base comes from The Wing, the nearby all-women’s, membership-only coworking space, which has a no-outside-food policy, and only recently (this February) updated its toast and salad-centric menu to include “heartier items” like a club sandwich, BLTs and yolky breakfast sandwiches.
To further support women — both eaters and cooks — The Sosta will feature a special pasta dish from an all-female roster of chefs, cookbook authors and style icons this year. Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, Man Repeller Leandra Medine, cookbook author Alison Roman and culinary personality Eden Grinshpan are all confirmed to collaborate in the coming months and promote their personal projects at events in the space. Though it would be nice to see a more diverse lineup of women on the list, LaRaia insisted that diversity is a priority.
In a world where major food brands still believe that women require special snack foods (RIP conceptual Lady Dorito), there’s still much work to be done on the perception of how women consume food (spoiler: It’s just like anyone else), but The Sosta is playing a pivotal role in smashing the patriarchy with pasta, Parmesan and gratuitous sprinkles of red pepper flakes.