Sonia Bertolone is sharing her family’s Italian cuisine at her latest restaurant in Calera.
Sonia Bertolone was 10 years old when her parents opened an Italian restaurant in their small California town in 1981. It was a new business endeavor for the family, but what was happening in the kitchen was simply an extension of what Giuseppe (Joe) and Elvira Bertolone were already doing—and what they were instilling in Sonia and her brother, Michael—at home. A love of cooking meals based on old-world Italian recipes was as much a part of their family’s identity as tomatoes are to pomodoro sauce, and that love is ultimately what moved Sonia to open Bertolone’s Italian in Calera last year.
“The community has embraced it,” she says of the restaurant, situated in the building next to Cracker Barrel off Interstate 65 Exit 231. “I knew we were going to be busy, but we’ve just exceeded our expectations for how busy it is. There are tons of people coming that were going to (the Clanton location). It’s been fun to see people I hadn’t seen in four or five years. And we’ve had some Italians come in, which makes me feel nice because I get to speak the mother tongue.”
Bertolone’s fills a void in the city’s food scene regarding sit-down restaurants, Sonia says. But that’s not to say the atmosphere in the dining room is rigidly formal. Like the dishes she serves that are often categorized as comfort food, the experience Sonia strives to create for patrons is all about comfort, camaraderie and appreciation for the heritage that’s brought everything full circle for this Italian-born cook-turned-entrepreneur.
Although her mother is retired, she drops by Bertolone’s several days a week to deposit her homemade desserts … and to make sure things are running smoothly. What Mama says goes, according to Sonia, who claims her passion for making sauces, pasta, breads, pastries and biscotti came from her. Sonia’s father, Papa, passed away in 2013, but not before teaching her the ins and outs of running a business. “My dad was a genius who could do long division in his head,” she says. “He had a natural business savvy, and never in his life met a stranger.”
Sonia helped her parents run their restaurant, Joe’s Italian, in California from 1997-2007. They moved to Alabama the next year, and after a short-lived retirement, they opened Joe’s Italian in Alabaster. They sold the restaurant a couple years after her father died. Another brief hiatus from the restaurant industry showed Sonia she was far from finished in what has become a second home to her. She opened Bertolone’s Italian Café in Clanton in late 2015. The Calera location is another milestone in her restaurant journey.
At Bertolone’s, traditional Italian favorites her family is known for, such as Chicken Parmigiana and Lasagna Bianca, share space on the menu with dishes that can be tailored to fit certain diets or preferences. “I started playing with old family recipes and incorporating low-carb and no-carb alternatives,” Sonia says. “The outcome is incredible.” Bertolone’s pizzas, for example, can be made with gluten-free or low-carb dough. “We have added a full keto menu,” Sonia says, referencing the popular ketogenic diet known for its low-carb, high-fat guidelines. “It’s Italian for the carb-conscious.”
Bertolone’s has a full bar—a first for her restaurants, Sonia says—with old-world Italian favorite drinks like Negroni, Campari and Bellini, plus a handcrafted ‘pull’ espresso machine with espresso beans roasted on a wood-fired roaster.
If you’re not already convinced Sonia loves her work, just ask her when she comes by your table. When she says she has the best job in the world, she means it. “These restaurants are my ministry. My servant heart is happy doing something I know I was destined to always do.”
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What goes well together?
If you need some guidance, try one of these wine and meal pairings Sonia suggested.
- Chicken piccata and Union Hill Chardonnay
- Caprese and Belle Glos Pinot Noir
- Farfalle and Quilt Chardonnay