President, creator, recipe keeper, re-inventor. These are only a few titles Sonia Bertolone holds at her restaurant, Bertolone’s Italian, which has joined Calera’s restaurant scene in a space just off Interstate 65 Exit 231, near Walmart. Cooking has been an inextricable part of Sonia’s life since childhood, when she watched her parents in the kitchen at home and their Italian restaurant in California. We caught up with Sonia about what to expect from her latest restaurant venture in Shelby County.
What’s your background like in cooking and working in the restaurant industry?
I was 10 when my mom and dad opened the original Joe’s Italian in Gilroy, California. I inherited a passion for sauces and pasta making from my mom. She taught me how to bake savory breads and focaccia, sweet Italian pastries and biscotti. From my papa, I learned the ins and outs of running a business. My dad was a genius who could do long division in his head. He had a natural business savvy, and never in his life met a stranger. I operated Joe’s Italian in Gilroy, California, with mom and dad from 1997-2007. In 2008, after we moved here and my mom and dad retired, and were miserable, we opened Joe’s Italian in Alabaster. Dad passed in 2013, and we sold Joe’s to Clean Plate in 2015 and retired my mom. I’ve officially “retired” from the restaurant industry twice; the first time 2007, when we moved from California and then again in 2015 when we sold Joe’s. Both times, after a brief sabbatical, restaurants started haunting my dreams. There were dreams of my old restaurants and the people who I met there. My dad would appear vividly in new restaurant ventures. Sometimes we owned restaurants in California; other times they were in Alabama. The recurring theme though was restaurants and the roles they have played in my life.
What made you decide to open another location of Bertolone’s in Calera?
I live around the corner from the Calera location. It’s both home and close to home. We are extremely popular in Clanton, but are limited to what we can do because of the size of our building. Calera is a huge facility that will house enough space for me to do what I’ve continually dreamed of. I’m thrilled of the challenges that will come with having two busy locations at the same time.
What’s unique about this new restaurant?
We’re about to reinvent Italian food. Historically, Italian restaurants have always been associated with high carbs. I started playing with old family recipes and incorporating low-carb and no-carb alternatives. The outcome is incredible. On the traditional side, we started handcrafting the most beautiful and delicious calzoni. We have done away with gas in our baking process, and I am thrilled at the outcome on our breads, cakes and pizzas. We also house a full Italian bar complete with old-world Italian favorite drinks like Negroni, Campari and Bellini, and we have a handcrafted ‘pull’ espresso machine complete with espresso beans that are roasted on a wood-fired roaster.
What are your personal favorites on the menu?
Cannelloni is my personal favorite dish. I love the flavors and the memories of coming home from school to smell the nutmeg in my mamma’s kitchen when the cannelloni was baking in oven. The filling blended with the pasta shell and the bolognese and bechamela sauces is the trifecta of taste, texture and aroma.
What are your favorite parts of your job?
I have the BEST job in the world. I feed people. Not only do I nurture their appetites, I nurture their souls, and in return they nurture mine. The people I meet become extended family. These restaurants are my ministry. My servant heart is happy doing something I know I was destined to always do. There is a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from taking a concept and working through the process of preparation, execution and presentation. Italian food should be fresh and simple, yet flavorful and vibrant.