LIFE IS BUT A DREAM
Chef Massimo Sola's lifelong passion, which became his vocation, is for many the ultimate culinary dream come true. Chef Sola grew up in the town of Varese, in hilly northern Italy — just outside of Milano, but it might as well have been a million — in an idyllic lakeside town that inspired his primary cooking philosophy: simplicity.
From home kitchen to restaurant kitchen to Michelin star and Il Primo di Manhattan (the best pasta in New York City), Chef Sola is the little acorn that grows to become the formidable mature oak. His philosophy, too, is elegantly simple: "I love what I do," he says, "and that is why I succeed even when I fail."
IT ALL STARTED WITH GRANDMA AND MOMMA
"A simple slice of just-baked bread, a hand-crushed tomato plucked fresh from my grandmother's vegetable garden and drizzled with olive oil, maybe some salt and pepper: perfection.” This is how Chef Sola describes one of the most joyous dishes of his youth, which he typically ate after playing with his brothers and cousins. For Massimo, after all, food and family are inseparable.
As for so many of us, Massimo's passion for cooking dates to his childhood, when he would sit in his home kitchen and, thoroughly captivated, watch his two earliest mentors: his grandmother, who would prepare homemade pasta with an "ancient" wooden rolling pin, and his mother. The family kitchen was his playroom, a place he could learn and experiment, nudged forward by a pure sense of love toward the art of turning simple ingredients into delectable creations to share with others.
"It all started when I was 16 years old and got a summer job as a dishwasher in a small French restaurant in Switzerland," Chef Sola says. "I kept looking at the chefs, instead of the dishes I had to wash." So began the journey that has taken him to just about every station in the house: dishwasher, server, maître d', restaurateur and, ultimately, award-winning chef. He has likewise ventured across the globe in pursuit of the inspiration (and the ingredients) that lead him to such culinary heights.
Early in his career, Massimo toiled in the informal dining rooms of eateries in Varese, his northern Italian hometown; among the renowned restaurants in which he has worked is the Grand Hotel Du Paris in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Over the years, his innate curiosity led him to seek any possible moment to get in the kitchen and observe the staff working their magic, thereby learning the craft with humility and determination — and without shortcuts.
Massimo's transition from dining room to kitchen was a natural progression. He trained with some of the world's finest chefs: first in Spain, with Master Chefs Martin Berasategui and Pedro Subijana; then on to France with Alain Ducasse (at Reims, in the Champagne Valley, where Massimo learned the true rigor of French cuisine); then back to Rome and eventually the United States — but let’s not skip ahead.
Chef Sola has always welcomed a challenge, which helps explain his peripatetic professional journey — a multitude of experiences that enriched his culinary style and would later decisively define the kind of chef he was to become. One example among many: In 2013 Massimo traveled to Beirut as a "kitchen adviser" for Lebanon's largest catering company. During that time he also taught 144 cooks his take on the art of genuine Italian food — lessons treasured by those cooks, who in turn now present their own diners with Italian specialties.
A PASSION AND A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE FIRST
A JOB AFTERWARDS
In 1994, as a young husband and father, Massimo unwittingly yet instinctively made his greatest professional leap — by returning home. That year he acquired the restaurant I Quattro Mori, with the goal bringing a Michelin star to his hometown. How, though? One night, in 2005, after 11 years as a restaurateur, at the conclusion of the last service, Massimo issued a firm demand to his two chefs: I need more from you than you’re giving. Dismayed, every chef left, never to return.
"The fact was — then, not now — the only way I could truly communicate what I wanted out of a kitchen was to prepare a dish myself," he says. So he did. He closed I Quattro Mori for 10 days, taking refuge in a time-honored place: by the sea. "I went to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Liguria for one week to 'learn' my first secrets about the fish." He returned to Varese, created an all-new menu and reopened just three days later.
In November 2007, two years after he took full control of his kitchen, I Quattro Mori got that prestigious Michelin star.
"The Michelin Star is something you feel inside. People start this profession driven by their passion, because of generosity and the desire to make people happy while not being daunted by the hard work and sacrifices needed to excel. This is what's needed to get the Star."
Two years later still, Chef Sola was awarded the "Premio Eccellenza Lombarda," a coveted regional culinary accolade for which he triumphed over some of Italy's finest Michelin-starred chefs. Others increasingly took note: Massimo was no longer a small-town chef; he was world-famous.
THE EATALY EXPERIENCE
One of those who took note was Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly, the global gourmet mini-chain of immense Italian marketplaces offering meats, produce, fresh baked goods, cheeses, an espresso bar, restaurants and a cooking school under one roof.
Farinetti hired Massimo to direct all restaurant operations at the then-new Eataly Roma, the flagship of the Eataly Group. Massimo began to structure the department, select the staff and bring all cooks up to speed. In his first year alone, Massimo oversaw more than 70 cooks simultaneously, serving over 1 million people while adhering to the highest possible standards of quality.
Chef Sola and Eatly proved to be a winning combination. Massimo upheld the brand’s core tenets of top-notch product research, sustainability and the transmission of traditional Italian cuisine abroad. He also exceeded expectations by training and contributing to the growth of more than 120 cooks, to whom he taught not only the particulars of a profession but fundamental values such as teamwork and determination. Clearly, kitchen communication was no longer an concern. How far Massimo had come in just seven years.
CHEF SOLA TAKES NEW YORK
From the moment Massimo disembarked at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2015, he was certain he belonged. "It was my 'Lady in Red' moment," he says with a laugh, referring to the lyrics of the 1986 Chris de Burgh hit: "I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight, I've never seen you shine so bright..." Italy meant home and family, but New York City, he was sure, was his spiritual home — and he had arrived at last.
In 2015, Chef Sola took over as executive chef of MAMO New York, the Manhattan outpost of the legendary Italian and Provençal eatery in Antibes, France. Rock stars, rappers, Academy Award–winning actors, sports stars, fashion designers and billionaires alike would soon find themselves intoxicated by his culinary mastery.
Massimo is, he says, continuously inspired by the fabled energy of New York. He began spending time in fellow chefs' kitchens, sharing ideas and advice, always channeling the curiosity of "young Massimo" still within him.
Chef Sola's mastery of innovation and tradition at MAMO has won him the coveted Il Primo di Manhattan award, sponsored by the century-old Italian pasta maker Pastificio Di Martino; Massimo’s Quasi Carbonara ("almost carbonara") was deemed "the best pasta dish in Manhattan."
Chef Sola offers his cuisine in America with the signature mix he has offered everywhere else: passion, simplicity and mastery.
THE SOLA UNIVERSE
Chef Sola, along with like-minded partners who share his dreams and celebrate the art of culinary simplicity, created and launched Sola Pasta Bar and Sola Lab; they're also planning the eventual launch of the future Sola Caffé.
Once again, New York is the city in which Chef Sola will write the next chapter of his remarkable saga. A decade after that first Michelin star, he's now creating a unique, visionary dining experience, one that aligns more closely than any other with his own core values: Sola Pasta Bar, the latest and purest expression of his culinary mastery and creativity.