Words by Lucy Studley
Born in Italy, made in Cornwall; a Cornish market stall and a three-wheel van grows to a thriving, UK-wide food business.
When 27 year old Ugo Massabo lost his job, he didn’t know which way to turn. After studying for his degree in Marketing and Management for Performing Arts in Italy, and off the back of producing six successful shows across Italy, he had come to Cornwall to pursue a career in the theatre. But, in 2018 he was suddenly made redundant and left with a huge dilemma; should he return to Italy and search for a new position, or embark on a totally different life path? “I was happily settled in beautiful Cornwall – a truly inspiring part of the world – and I simply wasn’t ready to leave,” explains Ugo, whose passion and exuberance is almost stereotypically Italian. “There were no other jobs in theatrical production in Cornwall, so I faced the prospect of returning home with a sense of failure and unfinished business. I decided that wasn’t going to happen.”
The story of what Ugo did next starts many years before in his childhood, which was split between Imperia (just east of the French border and the Principality of Monaco) and Milan. “I grew up as part of a large, food-centric family,” he explains. “I often joined my father Piero to make tiramisu as an après-ski treat after a long day on the slopes.” This family recipe became the stuff of legend. The lighter-than-air tiramisu was passed as a gift between family and friends, and was always present at times of celebration.
Made with love to a family recipe
When Ugo moved to Cornwall he continued to make tiramisu for his friends here, using this simple ritual as a way of conveying his cultural and familial heritage. Ugo recalls that this led to many conversations about childhood experiences, family recipes and food traditions, and about how so many of our formative memories are connected to food. Through the making and sharing of this recipe, new friendships were forged (including with his future wife) and people started to ‘get’ this fervent Italian when he talked about simple pleasures making for rich moments in life.
Left, Truro Farmer's Market, right, Ugo;s quirky delivery van
So, when facing that big life decision post-redundancy, Ugo asked himself what else he was passionate about – other than the theatre – and the answer didn’t take long to materialise. He recalls: “Talking to my partner about everything that goes into producing a theatrical spectacle, we flipped the situation on its head and asked ourselves what else I could do using all those skills, and that passion for storytelling and provoking emotion. The shape of an idea slowly formed, and it just felt right from the beginning.”
So, TiramisUGO was born. Widening the friends and family orbit, Ugo began making artisan tiramisu in environmentally friendly glass jars, using his father’s recipe and combining the finest ingredients of both his country of birth and adoptive home. He sold these little jars of heaven to local farm shops and delis, and took a regular stall at Truro Farmer’s Market.
Dishes inspired by Mamma Daniela
“The market is really important to me,” explains Ugo, who makes time to attend as often as possible, despite the fact that he is now busy with national deliveries and London stockists. “In Italy the market is the heart of every town – where the social fabric of our lives is woven together. I get the same buzz from my stall at Truro Farmer’s Market – it feels like a family.” Meeting customers face-to-face is Ugo’s expression valve. His enthusiasm and warmth is an intrinsic part of his product and business. “You can try and tell your story on a website or in your branding, but it never has quite the same impact as getting out there and meeting people face-to-face,” he says. “To me, there’s nothing better than smiling at someone as they try a spoonful of your delicious tiramisu!”
Tiramisu is one of those magical things that is very simple to prepare but hard to perfect. Like many traditional Italian creations, it uses a small number of ingredients but they need to be top quality. For Ugo, the foundation of this is the freshest pasteurised eggs from St Ewe – which is literally around the corner from his production kitchen so there’s zero food miles involved. This freshness and quality means that the product doesn’t require additives or preservatives and keeps naturally in the fridge for ten-plus days. The finest Italian mascarpone and coffee make this delicious dessert the perfect combination of Cornwall and Italy. Ugo now makes versions with chocolate and rum, and has adapted the recipe for vegan and gluten free customers.
So, come 2019, TiramisUGO was established as one of the great success stories of Cornwall’s thriving food industry; an award-winning product which is now stocked at such illustrious food destinations as Panzer’s Deli in London, one of the capital’s most famous and best-loved food emporiums. And then the second big career-defining moment came for Ugo – the arrival of Covid-19. “Things were ticking along nicely, and then all of the live events – festivals, theatrical productions, food events – we planned to attend were cancelled, the market was disrupted, and many of our stockists were forced to close,” Ugo recalls. “It was a scary time and at one point we had about £1,000 left in the bank. We had to diversify quickly or face losing everything.”
Ugo identified a gap in the market for high quality meal boxes delivered to homes, and so called on his mother – Mamma Daniela – to lend a helping hand. The Cornish Italian launched in March 2020, just weeks after the first national lockdown was introduced, and focused on delicious pasta dishes based on Ugo’s family recipes and made using fabulous Cornish ingredients. Ugo is now sending authentic Italian meals ready to warm through and devour – always finishing with tiramisu of course – delivered to doors across the UK. Not only did he successfully pivot his whole business, Ugo built on his flagship product to create something with wide appeal, and which has the potential to grow exponentially.
All the popular Italian classics are available, from Spaghetti alla Bolognese to Pasta al Pesto, Ravioli with Ricotta and Spinach to Mamma Daniela’s signature Lasagne. New dishes and seasonal specials are introduced all the time, and this is where Ugo really goes to town. A decadent new dish – Tortelloni with creamy Italian Burrata cheese and Black Truffles from Umbria – has been an instant hit. A summer favourite, Lobster, Crab and Prawn Ravioli, makes great use of Cornish shellfish, while during asparagus season Ugo ran two special dishes showcasing the annual Cornish crop from his neighbours at Tregassow Farm.
“Being based in Cornwall we have access to so many amazing ingredients. Cornish beef from Treway Farm, award-winning Cornish Gouda, local milk from Trink Dairy, Cornish butter, and of course St Ewe Eggs – our partners in making criminally good desserts,” says Ugo. “In a nutshell, we combine the best of Cornish and Italian ingredients, shaping these into delicious Italian dishes using our authentic family recipes. Everything is handmade and freshly prepared.” Aside from these major selling points, Ugo’s great strength is that he really understands his customers. “Our customers know what good food is, and how it makes them feel,” he explains. “The people who buy from us love to visit their local market and deli, seek out great local produce, care about provenance and sustainability, and are always trying new dishes from their huge collection of recipe books. But, they simply don’t have time to cook great food from scratch all the time – who does?”
With the launch of The Cornish Italian, Ugo has once again seized triumph from the jaws of disaster, and his honest, lovingly prepared food can now be enjoyed around family kitchen tables across the country. Just like Italian food, the recipe for success has involved simple ingredients, combined with joy and evoking a life well-lived. Sadly, Ugo’s father Piero passed away before he could witness his son’s triumph, but there’s no doubt he would be immensely proud of what has been achieved – all starting with that one legendary dessert. Through that recipe, he is still very much a part of Ugo’s life every day.