The Little Italy Restaurant That Somehow Opened During the Pandemic
As part of an ongoing series hoping to explore the experiences of restaurant owners and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, we are sharing perspectives from those on the frontline.
This is the story of New York City’s Sofia’s.
A pandemic is not exactly the most opportune time to open a new restaurant, but somehow, Paul Shaked and Adam Leonti have managed to pull it off.
For the past 15 years, Shaked’s family ran Sofia’s of Mulberry in the heart of New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood.
It was, as Shaked described, your classic Italian American “red sauce” spot with a menu specifically engineered to accommodate the wide variety of diners who strolled through those downtown streets.
“We were doing our own breads, pastas from scratch, and we had some organic and natural wines on the list but, for the most part, it fit in a lot with the rest of the block,” he said.
This year, however, Shaked, who’d previously owned The Cleveland (2013-2014), decided to finally reinvent the family restaurant. With a bit of luck, he brought on Leonti to help him open a new Sofia’s in March.
The James Beard-nominated chef had just shuttered his acclaimed eponymous Upper West Side restaurant, Leonti, in January, but a shared love of Italian food, wine, and quality ingredients, brought the two together.
The new Sofia’s would celebrate natural sourdough, use freshly milled heirloom grains from Hayden Mills and Castle Valley, honor carefully selected ingredients for its pastas, and feature an extensive selection of natural wines, a particular love of Shaked’s.
But once New York City shut down its restaurants and bars in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in March, however, Shaked and Leonti had to change their original plans. Sofia’s physical space remains unfinished; it was just in February that the restaurant closed for renovations.
Ultimately, Shaked and Leonti decided to go ahead and open Sofia’s — just not as the sit-down neighborhood restaurant they’d originally envisioned, but as a takeout- and delivery-only spot, for now.
“This happened, and we’re looking at a menu that is not practical to deliver,” Shaked said. “We would never send delicate fresh pasta in plastic containers because it cooks another 20 minutes on its way to the person who ordered it.”
“But, we thought, let’s just give this a shot and press play. If things don’t work out, we will take it day by day and we’ll see what the best decisions are we can make for ourselves.”
They turned toward a menu of Italian American comfort foods: lasagna, pizza, pasta kits, freshly baked breads, and even complimentary sourdough starters. They also started selling pantry items and, of course, natural wines (and now, cocktails).
Along with one other cook, Shaked and Leonti have been manning the space ever since. Sometimes, they’ll ride their own bicycles to make deliveries throughout the city, either to ordering customers or to nearby hospitals.
“It feels weird saying this, because this moment of time is so traumatic especially for people in the restaurant industry, but what little we’re able to do, it feels exciting and it’s really kind of amazing we have been able to still kind of keep this going in this time,” Shaked said.
“It’s still challenging everyday. It’s by no means a walk in the park, but it definitely feels good.”
Word-of-mouth among friends and family and social media has helped them stay in business and Shaked said, “the most rewarding part is developing a community around us,” often with nothing more than one of Leonti’s bread loaves.
“I know that a lot of people don’t have the means right now, but they are still big advocates,” Shaked said, “and it is really felt and appreciated. We will try as hard as we can to make sure they feel the same good feelings and comfort they used to in the past when they come to a place like Sofia’s.”
Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too.