I grew up near Mugello, Italy, and like most people there, my family had a farm. My uncle and father changed course and went into construction, although they still ran the family farm.
As was customary we all lived together, my family and my uncle’s family and my grandmother—so most days we could easily be ten for lunch or dinner. On Saturdays, the workers joined us for lunch and we became more then 20 people at the table.
My grandmother took care of the animals—the cows, rabbits, and more that we raised on farm. Because of this and other ways, food in my family was always very important. I remember my mother always asking me, “Did you eat today? What did you eat today?” My family lived through World War II and they remember the hunger they felt. When you are in that situation, you have much more respect for food.
We killed two pigs a year, and I always took two days off from school to help. We made migliaccio, a crepe with the fresh blood, and I was sent around to share it with the neighbors. We also had a cow and when there was more milk than we needed, my job was to sell it. Neighbors came over with their own bottles to filled them up.
I wasn’t too much involved in the cooking when I was very little. I was always around, so my family would ask me to help with simple things. Today, sometimes when I am making a sauce or pasta, and I smell the same aromas when I was little, and it is a very nice feeling to remember those times.
My path did not lead me directly into food. I went to art school in Florence and then into the clothing business, where I worked in fashion for 30 years. The business was changing, so I decided that maybe it was the time for me to leave and make a change, too.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly. I do remember being quite disappointed with some of the Italian restaurants I frequented when I traveling for work. People often took me to Italian restaurants (because I am Italian) and I would order familiar things on the menu but what I received often didn’t have anything to do with the real dish in Italy. So as I was figuring out what I wanted to do after my life in fashion, I thought, “you know what, why not open an Italian restaurant in New York and give people the real thing?”
I had never worked in a restaurant before. It took about two years of traveling back and forth between Italy and New York and there were a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge was teaching my staff how to do things in my kitchen. I not only had to teach them how to cook things my way, but I had to teach them about my culture and how we do things. Maybe they had to relearn things they already knew, but I was looking for flavors and quality that would be true to my culture. That is the most important thing in my restaurant. The other big challenge was that I opened during the worst year financially in New York—2008. It would have been difficult enough for me to start a restaurant in Italy. Doing this by myself in New York City, in 2008, was crazy. But I opened it, we survived, and my restaurant, I Sodi, is thriving.
The funny thing is I didn’t change my cooking to adapt to a restaurant. Instead, I changed the idea of how a restaurant works. I doubt anybody really cooks in a restaurant like they cook at home but because I didn’t have any experience, it was easy for me to cook in my way. I just did things the way I did them, the way my mother did them, without knowing they were any different.
Cooking professionally has been another world for me, but it really didn’t change anything about who I am. The biggest challenge was living in a new city and a new country. But cooking for a living and running a restaurant—that was just another big job. I have never been afraid of big jobs. If I were, I would not be here.
I think the key is that I believe in what I am doing. It is very natural for me to cook this food because it is coming from my culture. I had to learn to cook for a lot of people every night at the restaurant, but I didn’t have to learn how to cook. I had everything inside of me. I know from the aroma if something is right or not, because I have known these flavors and aromas all my life. I cook for my guests like my mother cooked for the family. I think that’s why my food is appreciated.