Michele grew up in Bologna, located in the center of Italy, and seasoned between Bologna, Padova Riccione and Monterado. When he was a kid his grandfather, Luigi, once told him, “Cook, and you’ll get to travel.” He took this to heart, making cooking his engine and a ticket for travel. Before moving to New York almost 6-years ago, he lived in Asia, Bali, where his family started and where his beloved daughter, Maitri, was born.
After 23 years of Entrepreneur experience around the word, working in many and more fields, such as management, electronics, communications, food, hospitality, and entertainment, he understood that there was a niche for him in New York City, a great opportunity for a standing restaurant formula. With Alberto, a great friend, a brother since school, moved in 2009 from the city they call home, Bologna, and they made Piccolo Cafe happen. Since then, he is the CEO, Founder & Executive Chef of now 4 established locations in Manhattan and one dedicated catering division under Piccolo Cafe umbrella.
He is also the Executive Chef at Biografilm Food Academy proudly helping, scouting, coordinating, suggesting and managing for the food and beverage operations for the film festival (art director Andrea Romeo) taking place in Bologna every year in June. (Source: Website)
We had the opportunity to chat with him. Check the interview below.
Let’s talk Piccolo Café. You started it with your great friend, Alberto. You have four awesome locations. Tell us more.
December 24, 2009. We got the keys of our first store, ready to open, excited and proud to start, on 3rd Avenue between 15th and 16th street. As per the name, we were welcomed – from one of our recurring customers, John, of our booth in Union Square Market – in this “piccolo” place, we loved it. We dedicated all our creativity, energy in designing it and in building it our own!
This was the beginning of our great adventure.
Six months later, this one client who came in for breakfast every day told us, ‘Guys, there’s the perfect place for you right in front of the New York Times Building. I work there. Give me a call?’
We then started to expand towards Midtown, first on the Westside, in front of the New York Times on 40th street and 8th Avenue, then the East side and our third location on Madison Avenue between 37th and 38th street.
This is when Gianluca joined us and we opened together what is now our fourth location, our Piccolo Restaurant in the Upper West Side on Amsterdam Avenue between 75th and 76th street.
You could say you can find us everywhere you go in Manhattan, more than ever since 2015 when we implemented our catering division bringing Piccolo outside the four locations, closer to all New Yorkers. We started with pop up restaurant spots; live cooking stations and a brand new finger food menu for special events.
Wouldn’t have been possible without the friendship of the three of us and our amazing Piccolo Team.
Has cooking always been your passion?
I am 100% the Son of my Mom, Bianca and my dad Danilo, I grew up in Bologna, located in the center of Italy, and seasoned between Bologna, Padova Riccione and Monterado. When I was a kid my grandfather Luigi once told me, ‘Cook, and you’ll get to travel.’ – He inspired me and I took this to heart, making cooking my engine and a ticket for travel.
He was the person who really taught me how to cook. It was all about technique. He loved preserving, pickling, those kind of things. He learned that after the war you had to make the most out of everything you had. That carefulness really makes me appreciate great fresh ingredients now. He taught me to be passionate about food, but also to be thoughtful, to learn about how ingredients interact, and to work with precision. That combination is what I want to do here at my Piccolo Café, and I wanted to keep his spirit alive through the name. Food and Coffee. Both.
Before moving to New York almost 6 years ago, I lived in Asia, Bali, where my family started and where my beloved daughter Maitri was born.
After 23 years of Entrepreneur experience around the word, working in many and more fields, such as management, electronics, communications, food, hospitality and entertainment, I understood that there was a niche for me in New York City, a great opportunity for a standing restaurant formula. With Alberto, a great friend, a brother since school, in 2009 we moved from the city we call home, Bologna, and we made Piccolo Cafe happen.
What are your favorite cuisines to prepare?
I’m totally in love with my country cuisine as many other countries but when comes to cooking I chose most of the time to cook my cuisine, hence Italian and the most basic dishes our of our regional cuisine are still my favorite and comforting preference such as some antipasti, pasta, meat and dessert, I can’t resist to tell you my favorite meno for an home dinner:
Grilled eggplant with garlic, meant and Umbrian Olive oil, penne with zucchini, scalliio, colatura di alici, a slice of bufala mozzarella, black pepper and a light touch of bottarga, then a medium rear skirt stake, broiled with lavender butter and course sicilian salt and a touch of tangy olive oil and a side of potato roasted in white wine, broth and thyme and at the end zabaione gelato and Fabbri Amarene, drinking a glass of berlucchi to start, then Amarone and as a dessert wine “Vin Santo” and after all a nice short filicori zecchini espresso. All this dishes are basic, you can’t be cheated and they reset my thinking, palate and day no matter what and playing with quality means also picking quality, both challenged that I love to accept, it might sound basic but I really believe less is more starting from the plate I use: plain rough teak vintage wood dishes and Gorham 1938 Rondo flatware for me !
You also have a culinary division. Tell us more.
We pushed our dedicated Catering Division in 2015: If clients can’t come to us, we will go to them!
We love challenges and this was as exciting as opening a fifth location. We started participating in a program of pop-up restaurants that brought us to work for offices like Martha Steward, Linkedin, Buzzfeed, we implemented our presence online in all the delivery and catering website and we created brand new finger food menus. For our special clients we also create tailor made menus and we offer our presence with our live cooking corner. This is very exciting for us and is something our clients and their guest enjoy, we make them part of the cooking process and they experience the Italian cuisine 100%
We have been since then one of the official caterers of NYFW shows, of worldwide known Italian brands such as Industria, Vespa, Ferrari, Ducati, etc.,. We love to cater for weddings and see the bride and groom joy in experiencing our food in their special day. We are listed in the Madison Square Garden list of vendors and we worked often for the Beacon Theater, our great neighbor in the Upper West side.
The event and catering side is challenging, but a lot of fun and a lot of satisfaction and proud at the end!
Are you planning any new expansions?
Not right now, with our Catering Division we „virtually“ opened our fifth Piccolo. But never say never!
How do you come up with new cuisines?
My mood has a big influence on all the process which comes naturally to me from a desire of going deeper and closer to the taste and visual I have in my mind and usually start with a walk through a grocery store, then a walk to my favorite pottery store and a walk listening music wondering around in the city. It’s a symmetry that I want and need to achieve to begin cooking first in my mind a new dish and then becoming real and then offered to my beloved customers, sometime doesn’t work some time rocks as taking photography : I might have a great subject and idea, but i might not achieve the result due to other parameters such as skills or the ingredients.
I always study and deeply research the food, the elements I want to cook in order to pick then at their best quality and consequently storing and cooking them with the best techniques and equipment for.
What are your favorite wine pairings with your cuisines?
- Risotto with octopus and bacon drinking schioppettino red wine
- Spaghetti with clams drinking Berlucchi
- Filet and lavender butter drinking Amarone
- Bunet dessert drinking Zibibbo
- Ribollita drinking Tignanello
- Grilled Branzino and fingerling potato with cervia sea salt drinking Verdicchio
How has social media helped you spread the word about your cafes?
We started to push social media in 2015. Before we were rarely updating our spaces, then we understood the power of social media and we started making them part of our daily life.
Twitter and Instagram are our favorite platforms and if you send us a message or tag us, you’ll talk with us and not with a “stranger”. This is what makes our pages so active, responsive and “populated”. We make our followers passionate of what we do, our dreams, our cuisine, our lives and we make them part of it. Not just with messages and retweets but also with contest and giving them the opportunity to come and live with us our dream if visiting NYC.
Social media gave us the chance to keep contact with our existing clientele, and to open a dialogue with possible clients or possible inspiring contacts and new friends.
A huge live window on our lives and our business, a great tool that gave us the possibility to expand our boundaries and elevated the tone of our voice both back home and in NYC.
Are there any projects you’re working on that you can share?
We are selecting young artists for our new project: we will launch this year the first edition of Fabrizio Alessandrini Award, in memory of a passionate photographer that prematurely passed away in 2002. We just had the exhibit of one of these young artists, Gino Alejandro, that is also one of our staff members.
This is just the first step of a bigger and wider project we imagined and we are in the making. Stay tuned!
We have a passion for photography, design, art and we want to make our Piccolo Café, open spaces to express these passions, our and of our customers and fans.
This is also what inspired us in launching BOLOGNANY line, the t-shirt and merchandise line sold on Piccolocafeshop.com.
In the pictures, our first creation “Mantha Gold” (limited edition hand screen printed in Williamsburg) and our latest creation #itsallaboutsoul.
They call me Vulcano, but I think you can call us “Mecenati”.
Photography by Michele Casadei Massari.
Could you share some inspiring words with aspiring chefs?
Never give up and Never sell lies!
In our venues, every day, clean service, honest prices, and respect for the clientele are fundamental. Our core value is hospitality. It’s like a hotel – the client is our guest.
If you’re good at cooking, cook. Don’t be a manager. If you’re good at being a manager, don’t try to work in the kitchen. If you don’t know how to run a cafe, learn how. Study!
Precision, creativity and curiosity are the keys.
And never forget Family and Friends!
They’re all with me virtually or in person. In our Madison Avenue space there’s my ex-girlfriend. In our first shop there’s my business partner. I have another relative in our third. I don’t have any friends left in Bologna; they’re all here. I got visas for all of them. All of them!
I would suggest to any aspiring chef to come and experience at least for few years our profession here in NY, actually, I will accept their resume and give them a chance!
Connect with Michele and Piccolo Cafe NYC:
Just a nerd girl living a geek lifestyle of writing, filmmaking, photographing, and designing. Managing Editor of Your Film Review™. Believer in God/Jesus. 안녕 I’m also a Director under @DVDNetflix, where I write reviews, talk film, and more. Follow me on Twitter.