Restaurant food these days consists of pickup or delivery, a desperate form of dining that I conscientiously avoid.
Reheating, which I find mandatory, is my least favorite form of culinary enhancement. And main dishes consisting of meat, potatoes, and vegetables artfully arranged in a takeaway container invariably arrive at their destination as a glob, the three items fused together in a revolting lump.
Then I heard about a culinary upgrade taking place at Sofia’s on Mulberry Street, in Manhattan.
Few Little Italy establishments are on anyone’s Top 10 list. Restaurants in that unique neighborhood tend to be very much alike, favoring, as did Sofia’s prior to the pandemic, a barker standing outside the front door urging unknowing passersby to step right in.
The standard menu at Sofia’s was a minefield, laced with dozens of benchmark dishes such as chicken parm, linguine with clams, and, of course, a specialty of the house, in this case Polpettini alla Sofia. Such Italian-American cuisine can be comforting on a kitchen’s better days, perilous on the bad ones. Little Italy restaurants are almost never subjected to critical evaluation, except on Yelp.
Sofia’s closed down earlier this year for a revamping that had nothing to do with the coronavirus. By the time of its scheduled reopening, the virus had arrived. Like so many other valiant establishments, it went into the takeout-and-delivery business. Instantaneously, the food was no longer recognizable as Sofia’s. The operation was in the hands of four men: the son of the owner, one trustworthy veteran from the old kitchen staff, and two new guys hired to do the cooking, Adam Leonti and Mark Ladner. In the unlikely maelstrom of a pandemic, two superb chefs were personally cooking every dish for their customers.
Little Italy restaurants are almost never subjected to critical evaluation, except on Yelp.
When I heard that, I moved fast. I drove to Sofia’s the next morning, rocketing through the deserted Manhattan streets in minutes, amazed to see Mulberry Street barren, parking available wherever I liked. I was the first customer of the day, waiting impatiently for the front door to be unlocked.
A few years ago, Leonti was chef de cuisine of Vetri, a revered restaurant in Philadelphia that I always considered one of the top three Italian restaurants in the country. Ladner was executive chef of the Italian restaurant Del Posto when it received four stars from The New York Times and a star from the Michelin guide. In 2015, he received the James Beard Award as the best chef in New York City.
The four men have divided the duties: Leonti has the title of chef, although his primary job seems to be baking, inasmuch as he is a master of silken interiors and cracking crusts. Do not miss his focaccia, chewy but soft-hearted. Ladner, who is working at Sofia’s temporarily, describes himself as the guru of the kitchen, and, he added, “also the dishwasher.”
The dried-pasta dishes at Sofia’s are magisterial, able to survive a long trip home, which Leonti credits to the quality of the pasta in use. Yet it is the tomato sauces I admire above all other ingredients. They are a blessed trinity—a pizza sauce, a pomodoro sauce, and a ravioli sauce, all somewhat alike but fine-tuned to their differing responsibilities. They are thrillingly created from exotic canned and jarred tomatoes, their provenance unfamiliar to me. You might recognize them if you cook with such products as Corbarí Pomodorino di Corbara.
Mark Ladner was executive chef of the Italian restaurant Del Posto when it received four stars from The New York Times and a star from the Michelin guide. In 2015, he received the James Beard Award as the best chef in New York City.
The manager of the modified Sofia’s is Paul Shaked, from the family that owns the restaurant. He does almost everything not involving a stove. Andres Dominguez is the fourth member of the team, a veteran from the old Sofia’s kitchen staff. He has the title of sous-chef.
All four walk or bike to work. All four work too many hours, often 12 a day. They wash the floors, the restrooms, the dishes. “I’m the lazy one,” said Ladner. “I work 10.” None seem dismayed by the schedule. Leonti says he once complained to his boss in Philadelphia, Marc Vetri, that he was working too many hours and Vetri replied, “You want to count hours! Who counts hours?”
Among the most fascinating aspects of the job is the unaltered dining habits of customers. Even though weekdays have blended into weekends for those without a job, which seems to be almost everyone, the patrons of Sofia’s dine as they always have. The slowest days are Monday through Thursday; Friday and Saturday are half again as busy; and Sundays are a crush.
Says Leonti, “We have no historical data on what people want to eat at a time like this, an enduring emotional crisis. Right now they are eating as much comforting pasta and tomato sauce as they can. That has to change. They can’t eat that many calories forever. Now that spring is here, we plan to have more vegetables and greens.”
The irresistible Sofia’s pizza comes two ways, hot and ready to eat or at room temperature for easy assembling at home. No supermarket pizza, and few restaurant pizzas, can compete with Leonti’s crust, which goes through three days of rising and a day of proofing. As much as I admire the crust, usually the most important pizza component, I am drawn to the extraordinarily vivid tomato sauce, an element often overlooked.
Their preoccupation with meatballs might be unprecedented. The first ones were traditional Americana, a dense mix of veal, pork, and beef. Then came the half-pound Polpettone Gigante alla Marinara, inspired by Leonti’s aunt who created the prototype and lived to nearly 100 in a small town near Naples. It consisted of a ball of chopped tenderloin stuffed with pepperoni, sausage, and mortadella and resembled an Italian piñata. Now the chefs are offering Polpettini ai Pomodorini di Corbara, mini-meatballs more in the Italian tradition.
Leonti says the restaurant has become a refuge for the four of them, good for their mental health. The only setback thus far has been a botched burglary by an intruder who came in through a kitchen window, jimmied open a cashbox, and found nothing inside except a pile of pennies, which he left behind.
Says Leonti, “We might not be making any money, but at least now we have a purpose to our lives.”
Alan Richman is a food-and-wine writer in New York