Taking on the Pandemic with Gusto in Its Continued Romance with New York
By Hannah Reimann with Caroline Benveniste
As you walk into the lovely storefront on the corner of Perry Street and Waverly Place, you will be greeted by samples of Prosciutto di Parma, Robiola cheese, flavorful, sweet yellow and red cherry tomatoes and taralli, circular biscuits that are a perfect complement to an aperitivo or wine. Pasta of the highest quality, in all shapes and sizes, sits alongside prepared sauces. In the back of the store, an espresso bar and counter where delicious Schiacciate sandwiches are created from the same cold cuts, high-quality cheeses, and arugula, is busily attended by baristas. Expect to spend more than you would in a supermarket for these treasures; but in reality, you wouldn’t find them there. The products at Sogno Toscano are made or packaged by Tuscany’s top culinary artists, and carefully tested and chosen by the shop’s owners, Brian Persico and Pietro Brembilla.
Persico and Brembilla have a secret weapon for customer satisfaction and quality control: manager Matteo Prodani, who, in addition to opening multiple businesses in fashion and hospitality, had a ten-year career with The Four Seasons Hotels in New York, London, Milan and the South of France. The winning combination of these three gentlemen is part of what has so quickly made Sogno Toscano such a sought-after destination. Knowledgeable and soft-spoken, Prodani’s easy manner is the perfect foil for this beautiful eatery where the customers are relaxed, smiling and enjoying themselves. Sogno Toscano’s popularity is soaring this fall. With the good weather, customers can enjoy al fresco dining with live music on weekends.
Persico, whose mother is Irish, lived in Galway when he was very young. Brembilla was born in Milan where his family owned a furniture business. When they were both six years old, their families moved to Bolgheri. Bolgheri is the capital of the Super Tuscan region, famous for full-bodied Sassicaia wine, among others.
Brembilla reminisced, “As kids, we were both perceived as outsiders in the small town and immediately gravitated towards each other. Everyone else was born or raised there.” Their friendship, which began when they were young children, has been a constant in their lives. They rode horses bareback, drove around on motorcycles and cultivated many passions including a second-nature knowledge of great food. “It was the best time of our lives,” he said. They wanted to share their joy with the world.
Their Sogno Toscano (literally, “Tuscan dream” in Italian) began when they were in their early twenties.
After graduating secondary school in 2007, they made plans for their future. Persico would be matriculating at a University in England, while Brembilla would be joining his family’s furniture business. As a last hurrah, they decided to take a two-month vacation in New York. But once they arrived, they fell in love with the city and began to devise a way to stay on. While waiting tables at restaurants, they hit on the idea of importing and selling olive oil from both families’ non-commercial groves in Bolgheri, one of the most fruitful and agriculturally rich areas of Tuscany. Their fathers agreed to ship 100 cases of oil from Italy to New York. After the difficulties involved in carrying the cases up the stairs to their fifth-floor walk-up, and storing them in their small apartment, they began approaching restaurants, but no one was interested in buying the oil. Their next idea was to create labels for individual restaurants, each bearing the restaurant’s name and unique logo. This second attempt was more successful with a number of restaurants signing on to buy the product.
They expanded their inventory, adding balsamic vinegar, pasta, canned tomatoes, and cold cuts. Their New York City clients include Union Square Cafè, L’Artusi, Morandi, and Saint Ambroeus among many others. In time, they mounted a nationwide expansion, resulting in a very successful wholesale operation with over 4200 clients in the United States.
In April 2020, Sogno Toscano lost 90% of its business as restaurants closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to quickly pivot to stay viable. Persico and Brembilla immediately created an ecommerce site where consumers could now buy their products. They kept 98% of their staff employed and rehired the 2% that were let go after three months. They decreased salaries, cut their own pay and closed their Park Avenue office. They also decided this would be a good time to open a brick and mortar location.
Persico said, “During the pandemic, Pietro and I were reminiscing about the times of our youth back in Tuscany. We had a big passion for motorcycles, driving around picturesque hills in little towns. There would be a small salumeria, an Italian delicatessen, hosted by interesting characters knowledgeable about every product in the shop. Cycling tourists would go back to where they were staying to rent a car, then drive back to the salumeria because they bought so many things they wanted to take home with them. They were excited about their experience. We want to provide the same kind of experience in New York.”
“The concept of the combination espresso bar, market and wine bar is very familiar to us in Tuscany. We’ve adapted this concept to New York realities—a little more elegant, more refined and with excellent service, while being very much rooted in the Italian experience. Most of the people working here are Italians. The storefront is also a showroom for our chef clients. If one of them wants something that they taste here, we store some products downstairs and can make deliveries via truck or Vespa on the same day, another unique quality of our service to them.”
They admit that if it had not been for the pandemic, they would probably not have opened Sogno Toscano. Lower rents in the West Village made it possible for them to find the perfect storefront. There you can have an expertly prepared latte in the morning, accompanied by a delicious pastry, a Caprese salad and Italian soda at lunch, and a glass of Chianti and a salumi plate in the evening, indoors or on the sidewalk terrace, served by a lovely waitstaff.
“This spot here ties it all together,” Brembilla added with a smile.