Posted on | February 20, 2014
Written by | Alia Akkam
Amid New York’s flurry of ever-changing restaurants vying for attention, there are unassuming neighborhood standouts that remain as fresh and vibrant as when they first landed on the scene. Dark, sophisticated Sorella, located where Chinatown skims the Lower East Side, is one example. Emma Hearst and Sarah Krathen—authors of the recently released Sorella: Recipes, Cocktails & True Stories from our New York Restaurant (Olive Press)—opened Sorella in 2008, when they were young Culinary Institute of America grads, and the restaurant is still going strong. The beverage program, overseen by Krathen, may have something to do with its success.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: When you opened Sorella in 2008, in the midst of the cocktail revolution, you weren’t keen on creating a drink list. Why?
SARAH KRATHEN: I worked at Zoe, in Soho, and they had a special cocktail program Dale DeGroff created back in the ’90s. While building Sorella I worked in the kitchen of Pegu Club, where I really got into cocktail culture. I thought a cocktail was its own experience, though, to enjoy before or after the meal; not something to pair with food. If we were going to be an Italian restaurant I thought we should focus on wine.
TBN: What changed for you?
SK: We were able to secure a full liquor license and the cocktail boom continued, so I figured we might as well go forward. At first it was a very small list: three cocktails that I created, a Manhattan or martini and then one that always changed—whether a Mai Tai or a margarita. As the restaurant got older and the staff grew we collaborated and added more.
TBN: That was a smart move. The bar is packed now. How did you find balance?
SK: We thought about what we would want to drink if we were going out. Many cocktails now are as complex as they can be, but ultimately we wanted drinks that didn’t compete with the food. Our Ginsalata (Death’s Door Gin, cucumber juice, fresh lime juice, basil syrup, pickle slice for garnish) has always been extremely popular and we sell a lot of the Honey Pot (rye, lemon, bitters, caramel). I’m always inspired by what the kitchen’s doing, and approach cocktails with the same seasonality. A cocktail should never affect the elements of service and take as long to make as an appetizer.
TBN: This philosophy of simplicity also translates to your wine list.
SK: Except for a few grower Champagnes, our wines are all Italian. I always liked Italian wine and focused on it at school [CIA] and did a fellowship at the Italian restaurant there. There are the Italian wines everyone knows, but I also wanted to do something different and look for offbeat varietals and producers with good stories all while being approachable. I only buy wines I would like to drink.
TBN: Your well-trained staff also helps educate patrons.
SK: I think it’s important the whole team is passionate about our wine list. If the staff’s not happy they’re not going to make customers happy, so then what are we doing? The best way to talk about wine is how it tastes. There’s definitely a dialogue that goes on about what a guest usually likes to drink and then giving them something they haven’t tried. The other night someone was drinking Etna Rosso and asked what other grapes it was comparable to.
TBN: What do you think has kept you open—and popular with locals—all this time?
SK: I still love it, which is the most important part. It’s not easy work. It takes up your life and I’ve missed out on much to be a part of something I love. I fell for restaurants in Italy because of a genuine feeling of people taking care of me. Hopefully people feel that hospitality in our space.