At 7 p.m. on a splendid Monday evening there were literally dozens of half empty restaurants between 50th and 51st Street on Second Avenue. But when I walked into Sofia, a small wine bar tucked into the first floor of a brownstone around the corner on 50th Street, the front room was packed, noisy and jumping.
This husband-and-wife venture (Tommaso and Toni de Grezia), open only for dinner, is so successful that the couple are looking for larger quarters and possibly a second space on the UWS. According to the menu’s “A Little Bit About Us” section, it draws on “treasured family recipes,” from Italy, and uses only organic ingredients that are cooked nightly by Toni and Tommaso, who is the pizza maven.
Sofia offers 100 wines (American as well as Italian) by the glass—6 ounces per glass—from Prosecco ($12) to Vin Santo ($13), a delicate Italian desert wine. Three and a half years ago Tomaso and Toni decided to turn the space, originally Toni’s art gallery, into a restaurant and wine bar, and joined up with Leo, the wine director, born on an Italian vineyard, who was back in Italy, stocking up on Sofia’s huge assortment of Italian wines.
The décor is quaint and off beat, with oak furniture, exposed brick walls and funky objects – a bit like a West Village dive, uptown, which is part of its attraction.
We started out, courtesy of the restaurant, with Sofia’s hugely popular spinach, artichoke and cheese dip with blue-corn tortilla chips ($14), which I noticed a lot of diners sharing, paired with an Italian Soave from the Veneto region. It was tasty, though, in my view, nothing particularly special or Italian.
I preferred two other “Small Dishes.” First, Sofia’s wonderful Mac n’ Cheese, a mix of orecchiette pasta bathed in Fontina, Cheddar and Pecorino cheese, with a touch of San Daniele Prosciutto, topped with breadcrumbs. Sinfully delicious. ($12)
Second, Bruschetta with three different toppings – thick slices of toasted country bread with an eggplant and olive tapenade (my favorite), fresh ricotta with orange honey (second favorite), and traditional tomato with garlic, parsley and olive oil. Lovely to look at, as well, the Bruschetta trio was definitely everyone’s favorite. ($16) It was paired with a 2009 Napa Valley Flora Springs Merlot — one of the restaurant’s most popular wines. ($13)
The merlot also went well with our next dish, a traditional Lasagna, accompanied by what I consider the best, and most ethereal meatball – made from organic beef — I’ve ever tasted. I’d go back just for the meatballs which can be ordered separately, either as 4 sliders ($16) or just with fresh sauce ($12). As of now, the Lasagna is a special dish only available on Sundays. But it is so popular, that may be changing.
A highlight of Sofia’s small menu is its Pizza offered with seven different topping choices. We enjoyed an excellent, classic Neapolitan style Margherita— hand made by Tommaso—with tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil atop a charred, medium-thick crust.
Sofia clearly is popular with women who want to decompress after work. They are about eight-five percent of its customers. Later on, it turns into a neighborhood restaurant. Though it only opens at 4 p.m. on weeknights and Sundays, 5 p.m. on Saturdays, it stays open late and on a Saturday night is a hangout for everyone from SNL performers (on their way home from SNL’s NBC studios in Rockefeller Center a few blocks west) to those who want a bite and glass of wine after a movie or the theater. And on Sundays, there is live music performed by Tommaso’s friend, Richie, on the Sax. It’s that kind of place.
242 East 50th Street
(Between Second and Third Avenues)
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag