By Allison Law, photos by Mark Stephenson
It was family that brought Sonia Bertolone into the restaurant business. Even as a child she was in the kitchen, cooking and learning old-world recipes from her Italian parents, Joe and Elvira.
The Bertolone family moved from Italy to Gilroy, Calif., in 1977, when Sonia was six. They opened a restaurant called Joe’s Italian, which would become a landmark in the small California city that prides itself on being the “garlic capital of the world.”
Many years later, after Sonia’s sister left California and moved to Alabama, the Bertolone family followed in 2008. They opened a new Joe’s Italian restaurant in the Birmingham suburb of Alabaster, which they operated for several years.
But Joe’s death in 2013 had a dramatic effect on the family. “Dad was the glue that held the siblings together,” Sonia says. “Without him, and Mom just grieving so terribly, we just kind of fell apart a little bit.” Joe’s Italian was doing well at the time, but with such a loss in the family dynamic, they decided to sell the restaurant, including the intellectual property.
Sonia took a much-needed break from the long hours required to run a successful restaurant. “I just really needed to kind of grieve,” she says.
But the business is in the blood.
Cooking and running a restaurant is all she’s ever done. So a little more than a year later, she decided to open a new place. Bertolone’s Italian Cafe in Clanton specializes in Italian comfort food, but with tweaks and alterations from the recipes she created at Joe’s Italian.
Business was slow at first, but it gave her time and opportunity to experiment. “The first six or seven months we were open, we were so slow we were just like, ‘OK, well, what if I do this?’ Let’s just see if we can make it better.”
A big part of making that better food at Bertolone’s is quality ingredients. As an example, she points to the mozzarella cheese they use, which is all natural from Wisconsin and more expensive than other commercial cheeses. “We’ve always built the business on a higher-caliber ingredient to start with.”
The menu features the Italian specialties you’d expect – chicken parmigiana, fettucine alfredo and lasagna, all with house-made sauces. But there are also custom, handmade pizzas (“Papa Joe’s Special” is a best seller, with pepperoni, salami, ham, sausage, onions, olives and mushrooms) and hand-crafted calzones (their dough is “legendary,” Sonia says). And three full-time bakers produce an array of cakes, pastries and sweet treats.
She pulls from her memories as well. The cafe serves cannelloni – ground beef mixed with carrots, onions, celery and mozzarella cheese, rolled in a pasta sheet and topped with meat sauce and Alfredo sauce. “That is my memory growing up – being 8 or 9 years old, coming home from school, my mom would pull cannelloni out of the oven, and that is just my warm and fuzzy right there, so I love it.”
Her mom, known to staff and customers as “Nonna” (Italian for “grandmother,”) is still a fixture at the restaurant. She uses a cane but is still baking cakes and making cookies.
And there may be another Bertolone in the business. Sonia’s 12-year-old daughter, Francesca, is “a natural at it,” her mom says. “She likes to be the boss, so I tell everyone I’ve got a little mini-manager.”
The restaurant is doing well, so Sonia is looking ahead to the next step, which includes growing her catering business. “It’s a challenge to me right now. So we have 700 people to serve, how are we going to do it off-site?”
And she’s in talks with a food vendor about the possibilities of making cakes that can be sold to other restaurants. She’s also working with an Atlanta-based company to manufacture and mass-produce her sauces.
Such steps are right in line with what her dad, Joe, always wanted – “bigger things,” Sonia says.