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What it's like to open a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic

Sofia’s Panificio e Vino
Photograph: Sofia’s Panificio e Vino

Restaurateur Paul Shaked and chef Adam Leonti planned to open a new Italian restaurant in Little Italy, last week: Sofia’s Panificio e Vino. But as the seriousness of the coronavirus spread began to become apparent, their opening plan had to quickly adapt. The team catapulted into developing a delivery and a to-go-friendly menu, an offering they might’ve opted for once their restaurant was in full swing, but it became their only choice in order to start building awareness and creating cash flow in a distinctly uncertain economy. 

The new Sofia’s resides in the former site of Sofia's of Little Italy on Mulberry Street, Shaked’s family’s restaurant that has been a neighborhood joint for the past 15 years. Little Italy can feel like this forgotten corner of Manhattan and it was a way to reinvigorate and highlight what is a culturally rich and historic neighborhood,” says Shaked, in an interview with Time Out New York 

This modern recreation of Shaked’s family spot may have the same convivial spirit as the original, but it is a wholly new creation, now with a kitchen led by Leonti, known for his glamorous Upper West Side restaurant, Leonti (it closed as of January 2020) and for founding the breadmaking school, Brooklyn Bread Lab

“We’re trying to make dishes that are extra comforting...not trying to push the envelope. Focusing on foods that you might need when you’re stuck in your house like this,” says Leonti, noting the menu could be prepared with a skeleton crew. Dishes include Roman-style pizzas, minestrone soup and Pasta al Pomodoro. There is also an alimentari section on the takeaway menu, where customers can order deconstructed versions of dishes that are simple enough to put together and cook at home (think ravioli with its pasta sauce and Parmigiano separated) and the hand-milled bread that Leonti has come to be known for, here offered as entire loaves. New government mandates have allowed restaurants to temporarily sell wine and liquor via delivery platforms, so Sofia’s has also been offering bottles of wine. Fittingly, Shaked, who is also a co-founder of the direct-to-consumer duvet company Buffy, has made a career around comfort of all varieties. 

The current menu that is available for delivery and pick-up is not the same as what will be presented once they open more officially, but it's also a chance for Leonti to fine-tune his recipes.  

Photograph: Sofia’s Panificio e Vino

Photograph: Sofia’s Panificio e Vino

“It’s hard to get everything from our purveyors right now, so our [delivery] menu has been going by what’s available in the market.” But it has brought the team closer to their neighbors. Though Leonti has plans to hand make the pastas in the future, he has been sourcing dried pastas from nearby Di Palo’s Fine Foods—as well as mozzarellas and salumi—in an attempt to keep costs down for customers while supporting a local institution.  

Still, many restaurants have complained that delivery platforms such as Caviar, Seamless, and UberEats have been greedy in their attempts at profiting off an industry in crisis. “It’s tough. I know some of them are trying to waive fees, and we’re trying to be understanding. They also have their staff and delivery workers that we want to continue to be paid fairly,” says Shaked. That said, they have plans to launch a more direct way for customers to order via their own website. They're currently only delivering to Lower Manhattan.

One of the biggest obstacles is brand awareness. People tend to pick the spots for delivery with 500 plus reviews. Sofia's is joined by other new restaurants in soft launch that we're meant to be open by now, such as the Lower East Side's Saigon Social that launched straight into delivery and Greenpoint's Acre which is open with a to-go windowBut Sofia’s has been lucky (and savvy) enough to spread the word via social platforms, a luxury that not all restaurants suddenly hopping straight to delivery have the education on. Not to mention, while Italy has been ravaged by the virus, customers have continued to order Italian food online. There's a privilege tied to it that is not lost on the Sofia's team. Meanwhile, it's a different story for Chinese restaurants, as many are hurting financially and even have difficulty offering takeout because delivery workers have been scared of racially-motivated attacks stemming from misinformed beliefs that the virus is a so-called "Chinese virus."

Overall, this is a uniquely devastating time for restaurants. “Hurricane Sandy and 9/11 brought people together—it's our intuition to band together with food, but now, counterintuitively, we should be keeping our distance,” says Shaked.

Leonti adds: “These past instances had a beginning and an end. We have no foreseeable timeline, so it’s a lot larger in scope."

Get a sneak peek at the cooking inside Sofia’s Panificio e Vino: now available everyday 11am-8pm, via Caviar, GrubHub and UberEats (their own website delivery is to come).

 Sofia’s Panificio e Vino is located at 143 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013; 212- 219-9799; sofiasofmulberry.com

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