In this trilogy of interviews, journalist Sally Williams and photographer Elena Heatherwick trace the joyful, tender, empowering relationships between women.
Jody Williams' new life began in the spring of 2008. It was evening, West Village, New York City. Jody had just finished her shift in the kitchen of Morandi, an Italian restaurant, where she was chef.
Jody grew up in California, where her mother was a teacher and her father, a civil servant, but her enthusiasm was for Italy, especially the food. After leaving college, she spent five years working in kitchens in Rome and Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, drinking everything in with appetite and wonder. This was part of her excitement that evening. She was going to I Sodi, an unassuming, new Italian restaurant, nearby.
“I sat down at the bar and was like, ‘wow’,” she recalls, “The menu was written by hand and it was very simple: five ingredients; ten dishes.” Fried artichokes, asparagus risotto, branzino (white fish that thrives in the Mediterranean Sea), stracciatella gelato. No long waits, stupid prices, showy dishes; just a haven of quality ingredients. Jody wanted to get to know the person behind the food. “I looked down the bar, and there was Rita,” Jody says.
Rita Sodi, the restaurant's owner, had moved to New York from Florence the previous year, after decades working as an executive at Calvin Klein Jeans. Her own childhood had been spent, the youngest of five, on a farm in the Tuscan hills, north of Florence. Her culinary roots were planted deep in history. She'd never cooked professionally before, but took pleasure in serving the real thing – lasagne, ravioli – just like her mother made.
Jody's first sight of Rita that spring evening, “was a really special moment that changed my life,” she says. But they didn't speak to each other. “I was too intimidated and shy. I didn't want to blow it!” Instead, she engineered meetings: she ate at I Sodi, three times a week. But still, she couldn't bring herself to say hello. “If Rita walked by, I'd chicken out.” Eventually, she did introduce herself. “Then, I'd figure out ways to engage her in conversation.” She'd ask her to recommend a laundry; surprise her with strawberries from the farmers' market. “From the moment I met Jody, I was fascinated by her,” says Rita, now. “I wanted to know everything about her.”
Their relationship blossomed and they went on to become “one of the great partnerships in the New York restaurant scene,” according to The New York Times. They joined and worked as one with a distinctly entrepreneurial spirit.
Two years after Rita opened I Sodi, Jody launched Buvette, a French bistro, on the next block. Their third place, a joint venture, was Via Carota, an Italian trattoria, which opened in 2014. With deeply appealing dishes and a charming setting, Via Carota “quietly became New York's most perfect restaurant,” according to The New Yorker magazine. A fourth, Pisellino, an aperitivo bar, followed in 2019. The Commerce Inn, a tavern offering old-style American food, in 2021. All are in the West Village. “We began as neighbours and then progressed to collaborators, co-chefs, partners, wives, everything!” says Jody.
We meet on Zoom where Jody and Rita are sat at the kitchen table in their light and airy apartment in the West Village. They wanted somewhere close to their restaurants so they could cycle around the neighbourhood. Both are 61. Jody is blonde and talkative; relaxed in a beloved sky-blue cashmere jumper. Rita's grey hair is chopped stylishly short; she is elegant in a minimal white shirt. Her accent, mellifluous.
In many ways, they are opposites. “We're really different in character, personality and background,” says Jody. Rita is precision, order. She does everything like a Swiss railroad, according to Jody. “Consistent, consistent.” Rita's Italian upbringing was characterised by rules and now they carry the memories of a mother she loved. The bed is always made after breakfast. She never leaves the washing up until the morning. Jody is free and fluid. When she cooks, she “riffs” and “plays.” “I can't do anything the same way twice,” she says. “I'm an excellent sous chef for Rita; I prep and I'm very fast. Rita doesn't really help me. I don't think she knows what the hell I'm going to do… and neither do I.”
And yet, the bond between them runs deep. “We have such common ground in what we do,” says Jody. “Our aesthetics, taste, interests are pretty much all aligned.” They help one another, pool their resources, have found confidence working in tandem. “We support each other through the hardships of running, owning and operating a restaurant and hope it will be everything you dream it to be,” says Jody.
They cherish simplicity, good quality items that are well-made. Indeed, one of the most celebrated dishes in Via Carota (named after the street in Florence where Rita used to live: the name translates literally as Carrot Street) is one of the most unassuming of all: the insalata verde, a beautiful confection of green salad leaves – endive, butterhead, frisée – in a shallot-heavy sherry vinaigrette. “It gets a lot of attention for a little green salad. But in our life, a green salad on the table is a must,” says Jody. “It should be eaten with your hands, leaf by leaf.”
They speak about clothes with the same attentiveness. For both, the ideal is a classic white cotton shirt and a pair of jeans. They like clothes that are built to last and have a timeless quality. As if they had always existed, and always would. Rita's way is to have a uniform range of shirts and trousers in her wardrobe. She is trying to pare down decisions, she explains. “I don't have to decide: what am I going to wear today?”
At the same time, they don't wear clothes in the same way. “I am more minimalistic and simple, cleaner in the way I put things together,” says Rita. Jody likes clothes imbued with history. “I enjoy the hole in an elbow, or the crease in a shoe. Something that can stay in my wardrobe and become an old friend.” In addition, their clothes need to be ready for whatever they might encounter during the course of a day: both outside and in the kitchen. TOAST workwear jackets are unparalleled in that respect. “It's so important to have pockets for your phone,” says Rita.
Jody switches off by going on long walks around Central Park. Rita makes fresh pasta. “This kind of manual work frees your mind,” she says. They have a bolt hole in Upstate New York where, says Jody, they “watch clouds go by.” They always have breakfast together and dinner, even if it's just standing up in the kitchen.
Their next project is an Italian forno, a bakery. “Our relationship, our love for each other, is fuel for us to take chances,” says Jody. “Let’s try it! Let's figure it out!” Rita agrees. “Working and living with someone is intense, but it's also massively rewarding to share this life with each other.”
Interview by Sally Williams.
Photographs by Youn Kim.
If you're in New York, visit Via Carota, the West Village trattoria honouring Rita's old-world Italian roots.
A Shared Synergy part one features the mutually empowering relationship between gardener Jessica Smith and her client Judith Lywood.