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Two restaurants, one goal
July 30, 2011, 03:10 AM By Erin Hurley Daily Journal correspondent

JD Crayne/Daily Journal Top: Jesse Cool, proprietor of Flea Street Cafe, talks about her dedication to using local, organic and seasonal ingredients in all the dishes at the restaurant. Above: Peter Sodoni bought Bertolucci's in 2005 from the children of the original owners. He fell in love with the place when he was 16 delivering bread from his family's bakery.

Opening a restaurant that keeps customers coming back year after year is a challenge, especially with an unpredictable economic climate and changing trends. However, some restaurants in San Mateo County have proven they’ve got what it takes.

Sodini’s Bertolucci’s in South San Francisco and the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park are two such restaurants. They appear different in many ways including their histories, menus and atmosphere, but the owners behind them have a similar belief: Going into the restaurant business requires a strong passion.

"I think it’s the most ridiculous business in the world,” Sodini’s Bertolucci’s owner Peter Sodini said. "You live it. You’re married to it ... if you don’t have the passion, the time to dedicate and if you’re married you’re taking on a second wife, and if your wife can’t deal with it, don’t get into the business.”

Peter and Victoria Sodini have owned Sodini’s Bertolucci’s in South San Francisco since 2005, when they bought the restaurant from the children of the original Bertolucci owners.

The restaurant opened in 1928 and was a hotel and then a brothel in addition to a restaurant until the 1970s, according to Peter Sodini, 52. He said Bertolucci’s was one of the "old Italian houses” in the area and a popular destination not just among locals but even celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Shirley Temple Black.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the restaurant expanded to its current size. After running it for three years after their mother died, Sodini said the Bertolucci children were in their 80s and closed for a year in the early 2000s "to boot out the union” and then "said ‘what are we doing in this business?’”

They were already very wealthy and so they didn’t need it, Sodini said, and the original employees had obviously found other jobs, he added. The Bertolucci children were still very reluctant to give it up to someone else, Sodini said, but they put it up for sale after it was closed for four years.

It was, Sodini said, "apparently for sale for a while.” When Sodini found out, he said, "I thought, ‘what the hell,’ called and put an offer and just struggled through and got it, thank goodness.”

Sodini said he first fell in love with Bertolucci’s when he was 16 delivering bread to the restaurant for his family’s local bakeries. By 2005, he had opened two other eateries in North Beach, but said, "I couldn’t bear” to see a place like Bertolucci’s end. He spent six months fixing up areas like plumbing and electrical, he said, but his intention was to change as little as possible about the place. He’d loved the ambiance of Bertolucci’s, he said, and through the years it hadn’t changed much.

"I wanted to build a place around somewhere I would like to go,” Sodini said. "I’m used to rebuilding but not building new.”

Sodini said there are still a few people who say the restaurant is not like how it used to be, but for the most part people are happy and even say the food is as good or better. Bertolucci’s has always served what Sodini called a "big and hearty” style of Italian food and he said he’s continued that tradition, with a bit of his own twist on the menu. He wasn’t able to get Bertolucci’s original recipes, but said his are about 90 percent of what they were.

Sodini still pays attention to changing economic times and trends. He said the the current economy is a wake-up call for everyone, and at Sodini’s Bertolucci’s he said "there’s been a little bit less income” and he’s had to watch costs a little more — but he also said there’s never been a time in the restaurant’s history when it’s been in danger of closing. Sodini has also, he said, "gone toward whatever I can” as far as organic produce, and said the employees are an important part of the business as well. He doesn’t advertise for the restaurant — he believes in word of mouth.

Sodini attributes the restaurant’s long history of success to a simple factor: It’s been around for so long.

"It was ancient, it was one of those places where you came since the ’60s,” Sodini said. "Just a silly old joint that I wanted to revitalize and it worked ... I thought the magic could happen again.”

Just a half hour south of Sodini’s Bertolucci’s is another restaurant that has earned success and loyalty from its customers. The Flea Street Cafe on Alameda de las Pulgas in Menlo Park has been open since 1980, when owner Jesse Cool, 62, and her former husband began the business after establishing a successful breakfast restaurant because, she said, "we wanted to do dinner.”

"I had no idea I would end up in the restaurant business ... I was brought up around a connection of food to community,” Cool said. "I just kind of did it as something that was a part of my passion.”

The Flea Street Cafe opened with a philosophy that Cool said was as unfashionable as it could possibly be at the time: Serving only food with no chemicals or pesticides —what she called "food that was just food.” She now owns two other restaurants in Stanford and Menlo Park and a catering business called CoolEatz. Flea Street’s food is "truly California” according to Cool and the decor is "casual contemporary.”

"The actual philosophy behind the restaurant is that the customer comes last,” Cool said. "I’ve always felt that if we take care of where our food comes from and those people ... and my staff as well as I can, and how the food is prepared and that it’s really clean and pure then you will be taken care of.”

Cool had experience as the restaurant’s chef for nine years and so managing a business was, she said, "something I had to learn.” Through the years, she said the restaurant has lost a lot of money, but the last two have been the best the Flea Street Cafe has seen. Consumers, especially young people, have been catching on in the last three or four years to the ideas she held about knowing where food comes from and what’s in it, Cool said. She has deep loyalties, she said, within the restaurant business and, she added, "if you believe in karma,” her restaurants have survived over the years because of support from the community. Ideas about organic and local food are becoming more popular which means it’s been easier for Cool to trust what she called some wonderful staff members to help make the restaurant better. It’s important to her, she said, "that I not get all the credit” for the restaurant’s success. Similar to Sodini, Cool doesn’t advertise for Flea Street — she thinks restaurants are very word of mouth, she said.

"The bottom-line philosophy of pure food has not changed — what has changed is the rest of the world,” Cool said. "I never dreamed that this style of food ... that people, that the young in particular, would care about where food comes from.”

Unlike Sodini, Cool changes the menu of the Flea Street Cafe often — she said it allows her to use seasonal ingredients.

"We’re always paying attention to how we can change a little and do things differently, and people want that,” she said. "I believe people will come back because the food and the care is good and when we get slow, that means I have to pay attention.”

The decor of the restaurant also changes often — Cool said, "I think people want fresh,” and while some people want the restaurant to stay the same, "this is my house,” she added. 

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