Creative Director, Samantha Wasser and Executive Chef, Ali LaRaia are the co-founders of The Sosta, New York’s latest fast-casual hotspot; one of the first to specialize in Italian cuisine. On a rainy New York-day, we were lucky enough to seek refuge under the pale pink umbrellas of this little slice of Italy and gain insight into these entrepreneurial powerhouses’ daily lives.
It’s no surprise The Sosta has been well received given Wasser’s role as a Creative Director at ESquared Hospitality Group and her track record of successful, fast-casual concepts, such as beloved vegan chain by CHLOE., for which Inc. Magazine titled her one of this year’s Most Brilliant Young Entrepreneurs Under 30.
LaRaia also found entrepreneurial success at a young age, when at 22-years-old she founded Marianberry Cookies–an all-natural boutique cookie company that was distributed nationally within six months of the business’ inception. Inspired by her travels in Italy, LaRaia created The Sosta to fill a void of accessible and affordable, high-quality Italian fare in New York City. Combine Wasser’s fast-casual branding brilliance with LaRaia’s culinary expertise and passion for Italian cuisine and you have a recipe for success.
Located in the trendy area of Nolita, The Sosta space, designed by London-based firm Alexander Waterworth, conjures daydreams of coastal Italy with its casual yet classy, airy atmosphere. The 66-seat restaurant is adorned with pale pink banquettes, light woods, marble tabletops, custom brass fixtures, and a pink neon sign which reads “Mangiano, Baby;” Italian for eat. Not only is the restaurant décor highly Instagrammable, but so are the homemade dishes that are presented from the kitchen at an impressive speed. Take for example the Zucca Vodka; flower shaped pasta shells with tomato, vodka cream, caramelized onion and fresh basil.
Although you can’t help but frame your perfect picture, the aesthetics are secondary to LaRaia, as she has prioritized crafting a menu that offers guests an authentic Italian dining experience. The all-day menu includes five preset pasta dishes, a variety of focaccia sandwiches and salads and a selection of house wines and beers. The restaurant honors local establishments by offering Marianberry Cookies, gelato from East Village’s Fresco Gelateria, and coffee from Williamsburg-based Devocion, who have created a custom coffee blend and Cascara soda specifically for The Sosta.
Fresh ingredients are at the heart of The Sosta with the pasta, sauces, dairy and bread all made daily in-house. By using clean ingredients, dishes are lighter than traditional Italian fare, lending themselves perfectly to the fast-casual concept. The restaurant has unsurprisingly been a hit; it appeals to both the health-conscious, hurried diner (gluten-free and zucchini noodles are an option) and those seeking quality, Italian cuisine in a chic, sit-down setting.
So how do these two restaurant tycoons do it all? We spent a day with Wasser and LaRaia at The Sosta to get an inside look at their daily routines, seek their entrepreneurial advice and of course, talk pasta.
What inspired the concept behind The Sosta?
AL: Through my travels and road trips in Italy, I fell in love with the food culture. I could stop anywhere along the road…in big cities, small towns, and even (maybe most inspiring) the Autogrills, which are the gas stations on the sides of the highways…and be able to get an amazing espresso or fresh bowl of pasta or gelato. Everything was super local and super cheap and it got me thinking, this type of quick, cheap, really fresh high quality Italian food doesn’t really exist in New York. And that’s where my idea for the fast-casual, fresh pasta place was born.
How did you two come to meet?
AL: I met Sam through Laureen, from Paperwhite Studio. Laureen thought Sam and I would hit it off so she set us up to meet – we had lunch and that was it. Laureen was totally right!
SW: Laureen has been a close friend and our branding agent for a long time now, working on the creation of by CHLOE., The Sosta, and now DEZ. I trust her like no other so when she told me about Ali and suggested we meet… the rest is history.
What does a typical work day entail for both of you?
AL: In the first few months since we’ve opened, I spend a lot of time at the restaurant. I usually am in [the restaurant] somewhere between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. prepping for the day, making sure everything is running smoothly, and a lot of the time getting my hands dirty in the kitchen. I’ll have a couple meetings throughout the day where I pop out to the front and sit down for a bit. It’s pretty nonstop!
SW: Every day is different for me and usually spent running around from meeting to meeting. I’m at The Sosta a lot since we opened–taking meetings and, honestly, eating the food! I also spend a good amount of time at our corporate office checking in with the rest of our team, and hopping around the city to check out new spaces for our other fast-casual concepts. One day could be back-to-back design meetings, another could be a tasting for new menu items, it keeps me on my toes and I’ve gotten really good at working on the go. I can do almost anything from my phone!
Besides fresh pasta, what fuels your day?
AL: Lots and lots of coffee from The Sosta! We partnered with Devocion out of Williamsburg to make a really awesome custom blend for The Sosta. It’s probably the freshest cup of coffee you can find in the city. It’s the first green coffee; from the beans in Columbia, to the coffee in your hand, it takes about 10 days.
SW: No matter what I have to start my day with hot lemon water with collagen. After that, the mornings when I can start my day with a yoga session are the best days for me. Then it’s usually an iced matcha (I love Panatea’s to-go packs), a walk with my dogs, and I am ready to take on anything!
How have each of your previously successful ventures, by CHLOE. and Marianberry Cookies, influenced the branding for The Sosta?
AL: Marianberry Cookies was a real grassroots project for me. I had a bunch of friends out in San Francisco working in tech and design doing a lot of favors for me. In contrast, for The Sosta’s branding we worked with one creative team at Paperwhite Studio and after a few brand meetings, Laureen and her team really got a good idea of the ethos behind our brand and were able to translate that into a cohesive (and pretty) brand identity.
SW: It was important to me that The Sosta have a completely different look, feel, and personality than by CHLOE.. While they are both fast-casual concepts, we pictured The Sosta to be a bit a cleaner and more sophisticated than by CHLOE.. We also wanted to make sure that it was clear to our existing fans that The Sosta was different, both conceptually and food-wise from what you can get at by CHLOE.; they are both destinations in their own right that offer unique experiences. But it’s the same creative development, approach to service, and commitment to quality that our guests know to be true of our brands.
You’ve made your fast-casual Italian dream a reality. What advice would you offer to someone looking to bring their own business ideas to fruition?
AL: If you really believe in something, it can become something. Have the confidence in yourself enough to take risks. Also find a good business partner you can trust. Having a sounding board and support system has been everything through this process.
SW: I always say trust your gut, and align yourself with people you can rely on. Sticking to those two mantras has helped to make everything I’ve been able to achieve these last couple of years a more reachable reality. Having the right people by your side, especially when it comes to business partners, changes everything.
What inspired the attractive design elements of the restaurant?
SW: The Sosta’s menu is such a true Italian expression from Ali’s travels, we wanted the aesthetic and design to complement the food. We chose to evoke the feeling of Italy throughout the space, from our choice of cooler colors and terrazzo table tops, to the dark wood accents and outdoor umbrellas and picnic tables. Working with Alexander Waterworth also enabled us to create a unique feel and design for the space that worked perfectly with our sophisticated branding. We wanted it to feel like a full-service restaurant that offered fast-casual service.
The menu offers five preset pasta dishes. Ali, why did you choose these specific recipes?
AL: In the beginning stages, the concept of building your own pasta–choosing your pasta and your sauce–was on the table, but we quickly realized that in order to have the best quality dish for our customers, it was important to strategically choose which shapes worked best with the different sauces which is why we ended up with preset pasta and sauce choices. For example, the Zucca (Italian for “pumpkin”) was paired with the vodka sauce to basically act as a tiny bowl to hold a good amount of our addicting vodka sauce in each bite.
What is your favorite Italian dish in the world and who is serving it?
AL: It is 100 percent a tie. The off-menu Spaghetti Pomodoro from Ceresio 7 in Milan and Spaghetti Colatura di Alici in Cetara.
SW: I’m not going to lie, my house loves The Sosta. My go-to right now is our Farro Bowl with a double order of our Calabrian Cauliflower – it’s addicting! My husband loves it so much if he isn’t ordering it via Postmates for lunch at his offices, he’s probably swinging by The Sosta on his way home to pick up a spread for dinner. Other than that, I’m obsessed with the Vodka Pie at Rubirosa. It’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
Your most cherished spot to visit when in Italy?
AL: I really truly love it all, from Mount Etna to Rome to Milan, but Piedmont was my first love, it’s where I fell in love with the Italian way of life; its pasta and its wine. Waking up in an agriturismo and looking out my window to watch the fog come rolling in over the vineyards….nothing better.
Photography by Anna Haines