THE TASTE OF THE FUTURE COMES FROM THE ROOTS
From Riccione to New York, by way of Bologna, Michele Casadei Massari’s culinary and creative journey
Aman’s past and heritage can create paths capable of taking him far from his point of origin and still stay true to himself and his individuality. The human and artistic adventure of Michele Casadei Massari begins in the warmest part of Romagna, in Riccione. He is one of the most brilliant culinary chefs drawing on his passion, wisdom. And from Nonno Gigi’s know-how (his grandfather from the Marche region) who also revealed to him the deep connection between food and travel. This union will deeply influence Michele Massari’s future and his journey as a true artist. He is able to think of a dish as a work of art, and use his eyes as kaleidoscopic lenses to share his vision with others. Founder and executive chef of Piccolo Cafe in New York (now with four locations), Michele Massari recently launched the Lucciola restaurant. Michele never ceases to apply his inexhaustible imagination on new projects and partnerships. In every new part of his life you find a pinch of his wonderful Romagnola energy. That energy has shaped him and pushes him every day to present his interpretation of food that started from a dream made in the USA, with a touch of Italian flavor.
You were born in Riccione, grew up in Bologna, studied in the Marche and live in New York. What do the cities you started from mean for you?
Riccione represents hospitality and courage. That city has taught me to not hesitate, to dare, and to seize the best moment of an idea. I’ve often been called “volcanic”. All my personality is in that adjective. Just formulating a thought is enough to have it suddenly give shape. On the other hand, Bologna means optimism. It’s the city that taught me about culture, openmindedness, the richness of diversity. Bologna is art, literature and humor; I have treasured this triad and learned to live by it. I grew up in the shadow of the porticos, learning the beauty of sharing. From Bologna I acquired the nuances that have harmoniously colored and completed my private and professional life. Bologna formed me, rebuked me and looked after me. And in every aspect felt a bit like the caresses from my grandfather Luigi (called Gigi) a bighearted Marchese.
Michele Casadei Massari’s official title is Executive Chef, but in reality, he is a complete artist. How much does the inspiration stemming from your other passions help you in your work?
Quite a bit. I am self-motivated and my own greatest resource in facing and winning over my fears and insecurities and helping me get in touch with my curiosity. For me passion is the ability to go beyond weakness, listen to different worlds, and get the best out of everything.
Photography, in fact, is one of your major interests. What drives your inspiration and how does it fit in with your work?
For me photography is like putting on a new pair of eyes, which allows me to go beyond the visible. Photography in my life is like “Dippold, the optician” in Spoon River’s Anthology. When you wear those lenses, you create a different world, not necessarily a better world, just full of meaning that you could not see before. Photography has taken care of that bit of astigmatism that I have. It was my friend and partner Alberto Ghezzi, who led me to the discovery of this passion. When I was in Japan, he took me to visit photography markets. He introduced me to this world by telling me “this is a camera, study it, it’s made for you!”. My photography has little alteration and a lot from my memory. I photograph to remember those memories. Images that are very clear in my mind’s eye yet are sometimes distorted and poorly defined. Every shot is dedicated to someone; very often to the Emilian photographer Luigi Ghirri. He was a teacher, as well as Gianfranco Rosi, who taught me how to choose the right camera and lens to shoot the image. And then Ed Lachman, who provided me with the tools to relax into the shot and create an image that shows everything I see or would like to see with my “defective” eyes ... Oh there’s Annalisa Milella, who allowed me to identify the unattractive part of an image, not to glamorize the apparatus or the technique, allowing more space for spontaneity. I have had exceptional friends and teachers who made my photography better. That’s good fortune, an honor.
The Bolognany line was born out of your passions and photography?
Yes, the project was thought up during an evening spent with friends while I was talking about what New York & Bologna mean to me. While talking about these two cities, I realized that yes, I was in New York, but I basically had never left Bologna. I had not
Meet Mantha: an artistic shot of roast beef created by Massari for a fashion collection during Fashion Week. “In my eyes it was a Manta. This image has become my masterpiece, so much so that it has become my most iconic portrayal.” “I found them abandoned on a rusty cooking surface of a kitchen in a place I was renting with my friends in Sardinia. It’s the reunion/coming together of two eggs and rice. As I looked at them I saw a love story, the story of love and started photographing them.” disconnected from that city in the way I approach everyday life, the rhythm of time, people, food. In Bologna, I had, and still have the spark, the technique that helps me seize opportunities and complete ideas. The only difference was the lack of Roman walls of the beloved “Felsina” (the Latinization of the Etruscan name Velzna - or Felzna - given by the Etruscans to the city of Bologna, ed), here in New York I found security in the surrounding waters of Manhattan Island.
What is Bolognany?
It is the synthesis of my existence. It was born from the desire to create a brand with designs that reveal my personal way of connecting with the two cities. My past and my present. I wanted to do it in a pop way. Hence the idea of creating t-shirts, with prints that represented this union. The t-shirts have somehow become moving images, a sort of mobile gallery of the city. Some of them have become really popular. What joy! Today Bolognany is the spin-off of all my artistic and intellectual manifestations. There are many projects under this brand: clothing, books, music, film ...
The art in your cafe comes from some important partnerships, like with the Italian singer-songwriter Luca Carboni.
I admired and have always followed Luca Carboni. He is a sincere, unique artist. He’s silent and reserved but insightful. One day, I was thinking about how to personalize the paper cups in my cafe. I wanted an artistic expression to be held in the hands of New Yorkers as they moved throughout the city.
And I thought I’d write to him. Luca designs, paints and creates objects of unique beauty and I wanted this form of art to be seen by everyone. Thanks to his artistic talent and total understanding of the concept, he designed three wonderful designs for the paper cups. We call them Popcups at our Piccolo Cafe. We had 350,000 pieces made, people kept asking for them.
With each customers cappuccino or coffee that was served in the Popcups the reaction was always “Wow! Who did these designs?” And the answer was “Luca Carboni, can I tell you more about Luca?” and many would respond “Yes please!”
Among your many collaborations, in the artistic and cinematographic fields, the Bolgona Biografilm Festival, brings you back to Italy every year. Is this another passion or a great bond with your homeland?
“A representation of my Pareidolia. While cutting a piece of meat and serving it I saw a scary face, a monster made of meat, I photographed it to neutralize it!”
Absolutely, yes for both choices. This project too, came from an eruption of ideas born from an encounter. Many years ago, while living in Bali, I met Andrea Romeo, founder and artistic director of Biografilm. We talked for whole days and nights. We talked a lot in my doorless house full of geckos. He explained to me what Biografilm was all about, but also what it would become. I did the same. I talked about myself and my ideas and I entrusted them to dear Andrea. From those conversations a sort of manifesto emerged based on our mutual intentions and promises. Andrea suggested that we create the Biografilm Food Academy together, so that those who love cinema could also experience the food and traditions of our region. Today the Academy boasts strong relationships all over the world, and here too ... what joy! Meeting people like Andrea enriches my life. From our collaboration I also created Wonder Pictures, a film production and distribution company. The cinema is another important piece of my personal mosaic of life.
Your New York story started with Piccolo Cafe, which now has four locations, and continues with La Lucciola restaurant. Did It all start one summer evening?
It all started one summer evening after the end of a difficult catering event. We were on a sailboat telling stories, the kind that light up your imagination and form ideas that leave you thinking for hours. That’s where a “unique and exceptional” idea was born. That’s how it was described in the visa application. In 2009 I decided to make coffee and cappuccinos (later on also pastas) on the street, at Union Square, during the Christmas market. It had never been done, but I thought I could do it anyway. I explained it to the NY State New Business Division, with a drawing. It worked, and how if it worked. Il Piccolo Cafe was born there for 30 days, the time necessary to change my life. In a 3-foot space filled with coffee, sweets, talk and courage, we came across ideas, suggestions, advice, and expressions of affection. And then on the evening of December 24, at the end of the thirtieth day of the Christmas market, with record snowfall and a handshake we were given the keys to Il Piccolo Cafe’s first location.
What does cooking mean to you? Experimenting or preserving traditions?
Experimenting AND preserving, but also nurturing, protecting, connecting, forgiving, seducing, nursing, communicating, moving, touching and observing. Cooking means laying bare my vulnerabilities. It is where insecurity and constant study meet up. The two matrices come together in a single dish, whether the dish is traditional, innovative or updated. My approach to cooking is like Hilma af Klints approach to painting. It’s spiritual, philosophical, devoted to the representation of mans’ existence.
Who is Michele Casadei Massari? A chef, an entrepreneur, a dreamer?
A man, a happy father, full of fears. For years I confused fears with limitations. But then one summer evening I realized that in reality the fears were emotions, ideas that quiver and fear that they won’t be heard or responded to.
And instead, here I am! Fear, in the end, is basically the reason to find courage and stimulate ideas. Even at the beginning of this interview I could have maybe been afraid, instead I have another idea!
Bottom right, part of Michele Massari’s vintage camera collection. Strictly analog.
The Popcups. The coffee cups designed and signed by Luca Carboni.