At the corner of Main Street and Prospect Avenue, half way down the only paved street in Ogema, Saskatchewan sits Solo Italia, a pizza factory that separates Ogema from all the other cookie cutter towns sprinkled throughout Saskatchewan. Their unique product, authentic Naples-style pizza, is made with ingredients shipped from Italy, and cooked in a hand-made brick-oven, built by the owner.
Italian native Marco de Michele and Canadian Tracey Johnson met while on vacation in Costa Rica in 2008. The two became close and they kept in contact after they returned to their homes. de Michele worked moving trains in Turin, while Johnson was living in Guelph working as a drywall taper. Over the next year, they kept in touch through messages, phone calls, and a couple visits back and forth. In September of that year, Johnson moved to Italy to live with de Michele and within a couple weeks they were engaged. They got married February 21, 2009.
Three years into their marriage, and desperate for new experiences, de Michele told Johnson, “I no want to die in the same place I’m born. Let me try out your country.”
After warning him about the weather in Canada, Johnson agreed, and in January 2012, de Michele, and his pregnant wife move to Johnson’s home town of Ogema, where they gave birth to their son Michea in April 2012.
de Michele worked as a drywaller with his father-in-law for one year, but there wasn’t enough work for two people, so de Michele decided to use the skills he learned as a teenager working for restaurants in Turin, to make pasta and sell it to restaurants and stores in Regina.
de Michele started making pasta in his house and delivering it to one former Regina restaurant, but after one particularly big order for which he had to spend “three days in a row standing up and working without eat and sleeping,” he knew he needed to find a better way. From there de Michele and Johnson started looking for a place to buy so they could open up a real shop. They bought an old run down quonset, and over the next six months completely renovated it and opened up Solo Italia in August 2013.
The business was off to a good start selling pasta to hotels and restaurants around Regina, but it wasn’t long before Solo Italia was facing its biggest challenge yet. “One year and a half, I think, the ravioli machine broke down and we need the parts and we need to wait one month from Italy,” said de Michele. The month without ravioli turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the business as it led to the suggestion by Johnson’s father to sell the pizza that up until that point had only been shared with friends and family. So de Michele moved his hand-made oven, which he had spent two years researching and six months building, into the shop, and started selling authentic Naples-style pizza.
Not only was the decision to start selling pizzas a good one for Solo Italia, but according to Ogema’s Community Development Officer, Tanya Leonard, it’s been important to the town as well. “Since Solo has come, we’ve had people come to Ogema just to go to Solo, and then they end up seeing other places and going other places in town,” Leonard said. “So it’s good for the tourism and it’s good for the economic development.”
Currently Solo Italia delivers its pizza and pasta to many places all over Saskatchewan and is working to expand outside of Saskatchewan and across Canada. “We tried to cover the bigger area of Saskatchewan, to arrive in Alberta but to go there we need to become federated,” de Michele said. “We need to increase a little bit more around province and after would like to go nationally.”
Although de Michele’s goal of selling his products nationally is exciting for a small business in Saskatchewan, he’s not going to rush things because he knows achieving this goal is going to take time and patience. “If you just explode, if you go fast high you can go fast down, so we try to go slow but arrive in all Canada to sell our products,” said de Michele.