Pizza is everything, gelato will no longer give you typhoid, and not all Limoncello tastes like Jif
Sometimes this job can be a right old pain in the arse. Firstly, you have to get out of bed (unless of course you’re a freelancer/dosser), then there’s the meetings and the emails and the tea round politics and the boozy lunches, free dinners, boozy after dinners and the hangovers, when you’re expected to write something down about that thing, but you made no notes because you were pissed and now you have a deadline and a headache and you forgot to tweet about it. Oh no, wait, you did, at 01.23am, and you managed to spell ‘bread’ wrong while posting a selfie on the bog. Shit.
Honestly, those junior doctors don’t know they’re born.
But other times it can be pretty good gig. Such as when a (very lovely) public relations person says, ‘Hey, do you want to come to Naples, we’ll pay for your flight and your hotel and all your food and drink and all you have to do is write something nice about our upcoming Italian festival.”
And you say, “Well, I can’t promise anything and you know we really don’t accept…”
And they say, “We’ll also buy your beer.”
And you say “Ok.”
So here are ten things I learned about Festa Italiana – the North’s only dedicated Italian festival, taking over Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens from Friday 13th to Sunday 15th July - that I'm only able to tell you because I actually went to Italy, for free…
1. SEE NAPLES AND DIE
So goes the old expression, implying that the beauty of Southern Italy's most celebrated city might so overwhelm you that you simply cease to breathe. Today you're more likely to be suffocated by the traffic, or at least be mown down by one of Naples' notoriously atrocious drivers. Still, death aside (and they love that here), Naples has a distinct, anarchic beauty to it: dark, raw, alluring... much like our host himself, Maurizio Cecco, founder of Festa Italiana and owner of Salvi's in Manchester.
Cecco, a child of nearby Pompeii, moved to Manchester in the nineties, eventually opening his own place, Salvi's Mozzarella Bar, in the Corn Exchange in 2012. He followed this in 2015 with Salvi's Cucina and Rosticceria on John Dalton Street. Cecco tells me that he began Festa Italiana last year in order to "bring together my two favourite cultures: Italy and Manchester".
He didn't know that it would work, that people would even come. They did... 25,000 of them. And they're expecting even more in 2018.
2. PIZZA IS EVERYTHING
So sacred is pizza-making in Naples that not only it has it got its own regulatory body, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletena (AVPN), but last year it was also declared an 'intangible cultural heritage' by UNESCO. There are more than 800 pizzerias in Naples, the oldest being Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, which dates from 1738. Here we met Vincenzo Luciano, whose family have been running the pizzeria for five generations.
Unfortunately Luciano can’t make Festa Italiana, but I’ll tell you who can: Gianfranco Iervolino, one of the world’s most famous pizza-makers and a regular on Italian TV. He will be in the Live Cookery Theatre from 2.30pm on Sunday. He will be joined this weekend by top Italian chef, Carlo Molon, and Proove pizza's Mauro Altieri, who will be leading an 'Art of the Perfect Pizza' class at midday.
3. THE POMPEII PLOP (MEANS CHEESE)
Mount Vesuvius put an end to Pompeii in 79AD. We all know that. We've all watched the awful Channel 5 reenactments. Except that it didn't. I mean, the volcanic eruption did bury the town beneath 15ft of volcanic ash and kill thousands of people, but Pompeii and its people (most of whom know Maurizio) very much live on, forever shaking a collective fist at the rumbling green monster in the distance, daring it to do its worse once more.
It is here, in this somewhat impetuous (the threat of instant death will do that) town where we first hear the Pompeii Plop. No, not the sound of a million tiny lava rocks raining down from above, but the strangely satisfying sound a freshly made ball of mozzarella cheese makes when falling into a water bath. Pompeii's Caseificio Salicella produces some of the finest mozzarella in the world, some of which can be found at Festa's Italian Producers Market in Cathedral Gardens throughout the weekend, or in Salvi's fantastic deli in the Corn Exchange.
4. GRAPPA MAY CAUSE DEATH
Traditionally made from pomace (no idea), Grappa emerged in the Middle Ages as a rough by-product of wine-making, warming peasants unable to afford the good stuff through the winter months, and helping to shorten their grim, brutish existence by slowly liquefying their internal organs.
Today, the Italians have almost managed to make Grappa palatable, which we discovered during a fairly lively session in the backstreets of Naples (note: Grappa Granny is not a real game and should never be attempted with someone's dear old Nonna).
You can try some for yourself at one of Festa Italiana's six bars (only six?). Alternatively, play it safe at the Peroni or Prosecco bar and leave without a hole in your large intestine.
5. CHILDREN ARE BIG IN ITALY
Not literally, of course, they’re very much the same size as your own run-of-the-mill infant, but the bambini do command a deep level of dedication amongst la famiglia. Not least our man Cecco, whose own mamma, Teresa (the inspiration behind many of Salvi's recipes) will be on-site at the festival giving impromptu cookery classes to the little rascalinis as part of Bambini Fest, as will Italian cookbook author and food writer Carmela Sereno Hayes, of Carmela’s Kitchen. Carmela will be teaching pasta making classes to adults and children in the Festa Pavilion on Saturday (11am and 1.15pm) and Sunday (11am and 12pm).
Elsewhere, in the Bambini Garden, there'll be circus workshops, face painting, food stalls and at least three tonnes of Nutella. See the full programme below.
6. NOBODY BANQUETS LIKE AN ITALIAN
As anybody who has ever flicked past a Dolce & Gabbana advert in a glossy will know, nobody banquets (or wears loafers with Speedos) quite like an Italian. This we found out at Lido Marinella Ristorante Meta, tucked into a cove just past Montechiaro, on the glorious sweep of the Bay of Naples. This stretch of coastline boasts some of the finest seafood in the world: anchovies, mussels, squid, octopus, urchin... and we devoured it all.
And though we can't promise you mountains of Amalfi urchin at Festa Feasts, we can promise that you'll leave this banquet as stuffed as an operatic tenor's cummerbund, particularly after four courses from three of Manchester's best Italian outfits, Salvi's, San Carlo and Lupo, who come together to create one very special evening banquet in the Festa Pavilion on Friday 13 July (7.30pm) - details below.
7. GELATO WILL NO LONGER GIVE YOU TYPHOID
It may be a cliché but Italians really do make the best ice cream. Gelato artisanale is everywhere in Naples, as it was, weirdly, in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Manchester, when Ancoats became known as "Little Italy' due to the great many southern Italian migrants who settled there.
Following the opening of an ice works, ice cream making bloomed in the area, so much so a street in the area was dubbed 'lickers' alley', due to the people who would queue and take turns to lick ice cream off a sheet of glass. Grim. This stopped when the licking was linked to typhoid, and supposedly led to the invention of the ice cream cone in Ancoats by Antonio Valvona. How about that?
Traditional Italian gelato will flow at Festa Italiana, courtesy of award-winning Salford gelateria Taste It, who use all natural ingredients and absolutely no typhoid.
8. SOME LIMONCELLO IS ACTUALLY GOOD
Not all Limoncello tastes like Jif sold in hilarious penis shaped bottles at the airport. Some of it is very, very good, such as that made by Limoncello Di Capri, near Sorrento. Using only lemons grown in Capri or Sorrento, it is fragrant, zingy and, most importantly, ice cold. Well worth a try at Festa’s Capri Spritz Bar, where you can sip the pure stuff or try the Capri Spritz – Limoncello mixed with tonic, Prosecco and mint.
9. SORRENTO LEMONS ARE F****** MASSIVE
Like this one… look at it! Can’t promise there’ll be any at the festival, but there might be. If there are, I suggest you lift it up as though Hamlet lifting a skull and shout: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite zest.” Everyone will think you are both learned and witty and probably want to cop off with you behind the music stage.
10. POMPEII IS ANGRI
...but then you would be wouldn't you? One day you're enjoying a life of decadence and debauchery (Pompeii was the pornography capital of Ancient Rome), the next you're decapitated by a huge rock while fleeing a volcanic eruption. Bloody typical. Still, shall I tell you who's not angry (but maybe a little unhinged), The Crazy Quartet, a lively jazz quartet who will be flying in from Naples especially to play Festa.
Joining them on the Festa Stage over the weekend will be London-based jive swingers, Hetty and the Jazzato Band, Motown maestros Whoever and the Somethings, and local DJ and notorious Italophile, Clint Boon, off the wireless.
Here's the full Festa Italiana line-up...
ITALIAN PRODUCERS’ MARKET - The Italian Producers’ Market will feature authentic, artisan, Italian food and drink producers from around Italy. Think juicy porchetta, Buffalo mozzarella, traditional cakes and much more.
APEROL ESCAPE - Aperol will be turning a whole corner of the Festa orange; expect hammocks, Vespa Seating and Foosball tables to boot. Italy’s most famous cocktail export, the Aperol Spritz, will be 2 for £10 all weekend long, served up in abundance and there’ll be Aperol Spritz masterclasses happening in the cookery theatre too.
CAPRI SPRITZ BAR - Limoncello Di Capri is the only real, certified and authentic Limoncello in the world. Until now, Limoncello of this quality has been a luxury enjoyed mainly by the Italians, but now this top-notch tipple has arrived on British shores… and Manchester is the first place to get a taste of Capri thanks to Festa Italiana’s dedicated Capri Spritz bar. Limoncello mixed with premium tonic, topped with Prosecco and garnished with fresh mint and strawberries, this may well end up your favourite summer cocktail.
BEER HEAVEN - Beer lovers will be in continental beer heaven with three beer brands all hosting bars and serving up some of their most exciting birras especially for Festa Italiana. Poretti will be pairing their new craft beers - Poretti 4, 5 and 6 - with bespoke tapas, while Menabrea Bar will be serving up their signature northern Italian brews. Finally, Peroni will be offering their classic lager, alongside Peroni Ambra - infused with chinotto, a rare Italian citrus fruit - for a zesty and refreshing pint.
PROSECCO, GIN, WINE AND VERMOUTH - A REAL ITALIAN FESTA BAR - Beer not your bag? Worry not, there’s plenty more booze in store - all authentic Italian, naturally.
BAMBINI FEST - From circus workshops run by Circus House and Play Factore, to pasta making with Carmela Hayes and face painting, there’s plenty to keep the kids entertained. Children will no doubt love the food on offer - from fresh pasta to wood-fired pizza, creamy gelato and Nutella. More info here.
ITALIAN WIZARDRY UP CLOSE - LIVE COOKERY THEATRE - From Manchester to the Med, chefs will be revealing the secrets behind Italian cuisine. Highlights include Gianfranco Iervolino - one of the world's best pizza chefs, who is flying from Naples especially for the Festa for a cookery demo. He's also famous for his Neapolitan singing, so get ready to join in!
Also flying over for the festa is Carlo Molon, currently Executive Chef at the Sheraton Hotel on Lake Como, who’ll be bringing his modern and experimental twists on Italian flavours to the Festa across the weekend.
The Live Cookery Schedule
Saturday 14 July
11am: Carmela’s Kitchen - Pasta Masterclass for Kids
12pm: The Art of the Perfect Pizza by Mauro Altieri from Proove
1.15pm: Carmela’s Kitchen - Pasta Masterclass for Adults
2.30pm: Carlo Molon collaborates with Maurizio Cecco, festival founder and owner of Salvi’s restaurant, for a special showcase of classic Italian cuisine
4pm: Aperol Spritz Masterclass
Sunday 15 July
11am: Carmela’s Kitchen - Pasta Masterclass for Kids
12pm: Carmela’s Kitchen - Pasta Masterclass for Adults
1.15pm: Francesco Scafuri from Tre Ciccio on how to create potted beef and paté ravioli, served in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce
2.30pm: Gianfranco Iervolino demonstrates his favourite dishes and treats visitors to a song or two!
3.45pm: Pasta Factory Ravioli Masterclass by Giulia Martinelli
5pm: Carlo Molon presents a masterclass in Italian cuisine, showcasing the dishes that make his Lake Como restaurant so special.
FESTA FEASTS - A unique opportunity to experience authentic ‘la dolce vita’ throughout the weekend, these ticketed long table banquets see the city’s finest Italian food brands collaborating for the first time to create the ultimate Italian dining experience
The Italian Adventure, Friday 13 July, 7.30pm
Salvi’s, San Carlo and Lupo Caffè Italiano will each create a course of this exclusive four-course dinner. Including Aperol Spritz reception, exquisite Campanian ingredients from Salvi’s; masterful classics from San Carlo; Lupo Caffè Italiano’s famous tiramisu for dessert and more. Tickets are £45, with all profits going to the Cure for Florence campaign.
Bottomless Bubbles Pizza Banquet, Saturday 14 July, 6.30pm
This banquet by Buca di Pizza is a non-stop gourmet feast, with bottomless pizza and Prosecco to boot (beer or soft drinks also an option). The Bottomless Banquet will run over a 90-minute session in the Festa Pavilion, and tickets cost just £25.
FESTA STAGE - Throughout the weekend, there’ll be live music from both Italian and Manchester musicians and DJs. Highlights include The Crazy Quartet, a four-piece from Naples who’ll be flying over especially; London-based Hetty and the Jazzato Band, who’ll be bringing classic Italian vintage vibes, swing, jive and foot-tapping rock n' roll; Whoever and the Somethings, performing a mix of classic Motown and contemporary covers; and local DJ legend Clint Boon, with his brilliant Boon Army disco.