Cookbook on a Budget: Via Carota's Onion and Bread Soup
A streamlined onion soup—none of the beef, all of the comfort.
Welcome to a new series over here at MESS HALL called Cookbook on a Budget. Every month, I’ll be sharing a budget-friendly recipe—now in printable PDF form!—from a cookbook I love. I want to offer an inexpensive entrypoint1 to books I think are worthy of your time and your money, especially in this era of insane supermarket inflation and cookbook saturation. This series will always be free, but if you’re enjoying it, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription which will, among other things, help pay for the groceries that bring you these Marian-tested recipes.
Via Carota is my dream restaurant: bustling but cozy, a menu that equally balances comfort and vegetables, a legitimate and earnestly-arrived-at point of view, a perfect spagliato. It’s owned and run by wives and business partners Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, and is perhaps the only restaurant in New York where I will happily wait three hours for a table. (The trick is to put your name in right at five, and plan an activity for the waiting period.) It’s also one of the few places that will still make you wish you lived in the West Village.
Williams and Sodi designed it after the latter’s Florentine home on, yes, Via del Carota2, where she lived while working in the fashion industry before moving to New York to open her first restaurant. In a city full of restaurants that have been designed by overpaid firms that base their decisions on things like market research and trend reports, one of the most comforting things about Via Carota—aside from the deep-fried piece of bread that comes with the fried rabbit (p.231, “one of the frugal ways that Rita’s family used to make the most of the small farm’s yield”)—is the fact that you can TELL it was born of individual taste. No soulless pale-wood minimalism here! The dining room is densely packed with birch chapel chairs; dark wood antiques showing off cake stands of dessert and fresh fruit; and a long white marble bar often accented with tumblers of negronis and spagliatos. As for the menu, Williams and Sodi designed it based off of the way they like to eat when they go out. “You ever want to eat all the sides sometimes?” Williams asked me years ago when I interviewed her for GQ. “Can’t I just eat ten sides?” Here, mercifully, you can.
I’ve written before about the limitations of the restaurant cookbook as a genre. To succeed, a restaurant book must be more than marketing collateral; it must communicate the ethos and aesthetic (original definition not 2023 definition) of the restaurant in a way that might inspire or educate a home cook or even an eager eater. Via Carota, the cookbook, leapfrogs over that requirement with an artichoke in its craw. While I’d still rather eat the fried rabbit (best thing on the menu) at the restaurant than make it at home (deep frying scares me), the book’s accessibility underscores the genius simplicity of this food and trains a spotlight on the magic trick that the restaurant’s staff pull off every night, transforming a handful of ingredients into something I’ll wait three hours to sit down and eat. Ingredient lists are concise; few recipes take up more than a page. The book is divided by season, and dominated by vegetables.
The onion and bread soup (Carabaccia) is the first thing I made from this book, and—like so many things I’ve eaten at the restaurant—it tap-dances over the sum of its parts. It’s just a heap of sliced onions, plus a scant cast of other veg, cooked until soft but not caramelized and then simmered with vegetable broth. That’s basically it, aside from the grilled or (ideally, if you’re me) fried bread that lies beneath the soup in each bowl, the gentle egg on top, the thick dusting of parm. This minimalism differentiates the soup from its more famous continental cousin, offering up the pure essence of onion—that sottobosco sweetness—without a distracting blanket of molten cheese or the competing flavors of beef and sherry. No offense to French onion soup, of course, but I’ve never made it at home, and I likely never will. Carabaccia, on the other hand, is now something I’ll lean on when I have a bunch of onions knocking around and not much else. After doing some back-of-the-tea-towel math, I figured each serving costs around $3.503, though its flavor is plenty luxe.
A few quick notes: Sodi and Williams tell you to crack an egg into each bowl of hot soup and promise that it will cook, but that never worked for me, the egg didn’t cook and remained gooey and creepy. Instead I simply soft-boil mine, and warm them back up in the pot of soup. A poached egg—which, to pick a nit, is what the soup wears in the book’s photograph!—would be an even more delicate option, but I am still developing my egg poaching abilities. Also, while I do think that using vegetable stock (homemade if at all possible; their recipe is quite similar to this) helps to emphasize the simple magic of this dish (and keeps it vegetarian), I’ve also made it with chicken stock, and it was delicious. Surely beef would be great, too.
Carabaccia (Onion and Bread Soup)
Adapted very slightly from Via Carota, by Jodi Williams and Rita Sodi with Anna Kovel
2 pounds red onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
extra-virgin olive oil
4 fresh sage leaves
7 cups vegetable broth, preferably homemade (you can also use chicken or beef broth, if that’s what you have)
1 cup hot water, or as needed
4 thick slices country bread
4 large eggs
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano, for serving
Coat the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed pot with olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) and set over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and sage leaves; stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and a few grinds of pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook gently, stirring often, until the vegetables are completely soft and begin to release their sweetness, 30 to 40 minutes. (You aren’t looking for a dark-brown caramelized onion here.) When the onions begin sticking to the bottom of the pot, raise the heat to medium-high, pour in the stock, and bring to a simmer.
Stir the soup, partly cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the soup is a deep, tawny color and the olive oil has risen to the top, about 45 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. The soup should be brothy—add hot water to thin it if necessary.
As the soup cooks, soft-boil your eggs. (I cook mine for 7 minutes, and then drop into an ice bath.) When you’re almost ready to serve, toast or fry your bread; frying it in a few tablespoons of olive oil will give it a gorgeous crust that both tastes delicious and stands up well to soup submersion.4
A minute or two before the soup is done, pop your chilled eggs into the pot to warm them up.
Place a slice of bread in each soup bowl. Ladle the soup on top, with an egg for each bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with plenty of parmigiano. I like to add a few extra cracks of pepper, too.
I’ll be calculating the cost of each dish as best I can, and will be mostly avoiding recipes with 30 ingredients, but will happily include recipes that might force you to buy a few new-to-you ingredients. We at Mess Hall reject the ossification of culinary blinders!
How is it that I only JUST realized that the restaurant translates to “Carrot Way” ??
I calculated this based on prices at my local Wegmans, and only included the amount of an ingredient used; e.g. if parm is $12.65 a pound, this recipe only uses $2 of it (75g). I don’t count olive oil, salt, and pepper, since I assume everyone has those lying around.
I also like to rub my just-fried bread with the face of a halved garlic clove.