We chat to Giorgio Fontana about pizza, pop ups and purple plants
What Cibus founder Giorgio Fontana doesn’t know about aubergines frankly isn’t worth knowing.
I recently spent a delightful morning sipping coffee with Giorgio and his Head Chef and Cibus equity partner Marco Bracchitta as they brandished photos of their favourite shiny purple fruit on their smartphone screens, comparing their various merits.
In Italian cuisine, produce is key so I wouldn’t expect anything less from the team behind what will be “Levenshulme’s first Italian restaurant”.
Levenshulme has got a sense of community that is unbelievable
You might know Giorgio from his Cibus pizza pop up at Fred’s Ale House and Levenshulme Market. But I’m here to talk about a move into a larger, permanent space, the former M19 nightclub next door to Freds’s that is set to become Cibus Ristorante.
Which is how we've got onto aubergines.
“The produce that comes from Holland is all made in greenhouses." says Girogio, "It tastes okay. They all look the same. The prices are so competitive that nobody wants to stock the Italian ones. I have to get them from specialised Italian suppliers direct to us.”
Giorgio was born in the Venetian countryside but left Italy 24 years ago for London.
Like many, he began as a pizza chef. In 1997 he started working for Giorgio Locatelli in what went on to be an award-winning fine dining team. After wearing many different hospitality hats around London learning lessons along the way, and a stint working in Barbados, he landed in the similarly desirable playboy patch of Levenshulme, Manchester.
A popular pop up at Fred's Ale House
But Giorgio credits Marco for the pizzas at Cibus. The pair met while working at Salvi's five years ago and when Giorgio left to concentrate on “a family-style life” outside the city. It wasn’t long before they cooked up plans for a relaxed pizza pop up.
“We started very humbly,” says Giorgio, “We didn't even have the money to buy a mixer. Our first mixer was a bucket and we did it by hand. We shook hands with Lawrence Hennigan on the pop-up and said, let's give it a go.”
But Cibus pizza quickly built a great reputation. Our reviewer called Cibus "as good as Rudy's or Honest Crust - and cheaper" and many more sang its praises. Levenshulme welcomed this local gem with open arms.
“Levenshulme has got a sense of community that is unbelievable. The more that I live here, the more that I know everyone, the more I love it.”
Pizza in the pandemic
When he became a temporary pizza delivery man during the pandemic, Giorgio fell deeper in love as he got out and about delivering pizzas to the community and getting to know his customers even better.
“I called Marco and I said, dude, we’ve got the market equipment, we’re going to make some pizzas at home. We'll try to deliver it and see how it works. So we mounted the pizza oven in the back garden. After two weeks, we said okay, let's give it a go [at Fred's].
“Marco was making the food, and I was delivering with another guy. We were trying to work it all out of Whatsapp. I was spending about 10 hours a week writing orders, taking messages from customers. It was really hard work."
The progression to Cibus Ristorante - and how to pronounce it
Fred’s owner Lawrence Hennigan is known as “the king of Levenshulme”. He also owns The Union and Hennigan's Bar as well as the now-defunct Palace nightclub. Giorgio talks fondly of his landlord, laughing about his stories of getting a demo tape from Oasis but declining their request for a gig at The Palace. When the Hennigans decided to close their club M19, they offered it to the pair for a proper restaurant.
“Some people pronounce it, SIGH-bus, some KEY-bus - it's a talking point.”
Their Levenshulme regulars know it’s “CHEE-bus” and they also know that there is much more than pizza to what Giorgio and Marco are doing.
So the name Cibus (which simply means “food” in Latin) will stay and so will the pizzas but a full restaurant space and large kitchen give the team a chance to expand the menu in a way they couldn’t as a pop up. Expect authentic, regional and traditional cuisine with not a bog-standard carbonara in sight. Giorgio’s Venetian roots and Marco’s Sicilian ones will be present in the food but they will take inspiration from all regions of Italy.
The importance of well-sourced ingredients
Italian cuisine has perhaps been a bit misunderstood in the UK over the years with many restaurants sticking to a safe blueprint of a menu. Cibus Ristorante aims to showcase some lesser known dishes and ingredients.
“It's about seasonality. Each region has got so many microclimates that allow different types of vegetables and fruit to grow at different times of the year. Sometimes I can't find the product that I'd like to cook because they won't export it. Cime di Rapa only grows in Puglia. It's got this minerality from the calcareous stony ground. Olives grow there too. You can't plant Cime di Rapa in Veneto, it won't grow. I've found this company that does them picked and frozen. They lose a little bit of bite but in Italian cuisine, we cook the vegetables, we make them nice and soft. The al dente vegetable is a French way of cooking where presentation is more important than flavour.”
Giorgio moves on to rhapsodising about radicchio: “The round one is called chioggia. Castelfranco is a leafy one, a big leaf like a salad and not as bitter. Radicchio de treviso is longer, like endive. Then you have the tardivo, these are the vegetables that Manchester hasn't seen yet. It’s sweet, it's not bitter. It's just another level. You can have it as a salad, you can have it grilled, stewed - fantastico!”
A lot of the produce comes locally but certain ingredients like cheese, flour, tomatoes and specialist vegetables simply must be shipped in from Italy to be of the standard required.
“We're not going to say, oh we do zero miles. We can do it as much as possible. Certain things we buy at Unicorn or the organic shop down the road. We wake up in the middle of the night, go and check some fishes at Smithfield. You see the eye of that fish that is nice and clear. I want that one because I know that it’s fresh. It's interesting to go and debate with the market people, like, what are you giving me man? This is shit. ‘It's the only one that I've got.’ Go in the back there and get me another one!”
Of course, there are copious fresh herbs too, Giorgio shudders with the memory of temping as a chef in various kitchens over the years.
“You see all these dried herbs and it all ends up tasting like Dolmio. We've got fresh parsley, rosemary, sage, bay leaves and thyme. Those are the herbs in Italian cuisine. In Veneto, where Marco Polo went, there are a lot of recipes that use spices: cinnamon, cloves - French beans cooked with cinnamon and tomato. Even on fish dishes. There's no tarragon, no coriander. Basil is a big part of the culture especially the basil of Prato, Genoa to make pesto.
“There are these small basil leaves that grow on hills by the sea. They've got the minerality of the soil and the saltiness of this sea air. In Naples, there are lovely big leaves of basil, nice and fragrant but that one has got a particular taste that that is just stunning for pesto. And then obviously, each garden in Italy will have a plant of basil - and chilli.
“You’d be surprised as well, the amount of garlic that Italians normally use. It's literally half [a clove]. We just flavour with garlic. If you put too much garlic, too much onion, too much chilli. It doesn't taste any more of the vegetable, the meat and the fish. This is the basis of the Italian cuisine.”
What's on the menu at the new Cibus Ristorante?
“A lot of our customers come for the specials. Those little things you can't get anywhere else.”
“We’ve got these Puglian bombetti which are pork collar neck, thinly sliced, wrapped in pecorino cheese, filled with the sun-dried tomato, and rolled into a little parcel and then breaded and baked in the oven.
“When it comes to parmigiana, there is a dictionary of different ones. Some bake the aubergine, some fry it, some grill it. Some use fresh tomato, some add minced meat, ham, eggs. There are varieties from town to town, from region to region. I love to read books about each region. Having worked with the chefs from all kinds of regions when I was in London, you can recognise, oh, they don't dice the onion like that, they only slice it. It changes the flavour and those are the interesting things that we are passionate about.”
“Our pizzas are not 12 inches, they're 10 because we wanted the customer to have a starter, a side and a pizza instead of just having a pizza and feeling bloated. We prove our pizza dough for at least 70 hours. All the enzymes and the glucose work together and they expel the air and become sour. When it cooks it's just lighter and more digestible.
"The salted savoury doughnuts are really popular too - like dough balls fried in good oil and topped with marinara sauce, tomato with loads of garlic loads of onion and basil and then pesto mayo and parmesan cheese on top. We do them at the market as well, they're very moreish. You'll see something similar in Naples, they call it Montanara.
“If you go to Emilia Romagna they call them crescentine, they cut them and fry them and add a very mild soft cheese. In Bologna, they put lardo di colonnata from selected pigs that's cured and peppered. Thinly sliced on hot dough, mama mia! We're not talking healthy here, we're talking flavours. This is for those that want to try the real way of eating in Italy."
There is talk too of pizza metro - pizza by the metre. A progression of what they used to do at Chorlton’s Elecktrik with their pizza gyro pop up. Gyro means to go around - the Italian version of Tour De France is called Gyro D'Italia.
“Gordon Ramsay calls it bottomless pizza,” says Giorgio.
Marco started making pizza back in Sicily when he was 15: “I went to this pizzeria and said, look, I haven't got any experience but I can try to learn. I started to learn and practice different ways of making pizza, different kinds of flour. I really have a passion for what I do.”
The head chef brings Sicilian touches to the menu in specials like caponata with swordfish, deep-fried aubergines and cherry tomatoes on bruschetta, arancini risotto balls, his mum’s recipe for chickpea pancakes called panella and the classic cannoli dessert filled with Sicilian ricotta and pistachio.
And there will be Sunday roasts too, in the classic British style but with some Italian touches, think porchetta or braised lamb with anchovies and sage.
Their gravy is cooked for five days, “It is properly made from bones. Boil it down, bring it up, skim it. It costs a flipping fortune. Our ethos is to make everything from scratch. People recognise that craft and passion, the knowledge and you taste it.”
What about the booze?
At Fred’s, Giorgio had no input into the alcohol side of things but at the new restaurant, he has had the whole bar to play with.
A bijou wine list of just nine bottles starts at £4.75 for a glass of house white - a Chardonnay from Veneto. There's also a Pinot Grigio from Friuli Venezia Giulia at the edge of the Dolomites where the minerality in the soil brings a bit more excitement to the grapes, a floral Roero Arneis from Piemonte and a white Vernaccia at the top end of the price scale at £45 a bottle. There’s a £70 Barolo too if you want to splash out on a beautiful red. The mark up is low to keep prices good so you’re getting bang for your buck.
Spritz is the drink du jour these days but Cibus is eschewing trendy Aperol for something more traditional.
“I'm using Select. Spritz is Venetian, they invented it, and it started actually with Select. It's another orangey, vermouthy flavoured fortified wine. Not many use it - even in Italy. It’s got more of a Campari-ish feel to it. It's a bit stronger and more bitter.”
On the beer front, there will be Menabrea on draft - renowned to be the finest lager in Italy - made with spring water from the mountains above Turin. Craft beers will come from an Italian brewery called Baladin, one of the first in Italy to start doing craft beer around 30 years ago.
“He comes from a family that were making Barolo wine and the kid decided to do beer. He grows his own hops and ferments the beer in bottle in the méthode champenoise. Pricey but quality. Badadin uses the leftover skin of oranges and lemons from organic farms to make the beer. They also make their own cola. It tastes Coca Cola-ish but the colour is more purpley. It’s made from the real fruit of cola.”
If someone pays attention to the soft drinks you know they're paying attention to everything. It’s this attention to detail that has got me really excited about this place.
I look around the large restaurant space and imagine it filled with customers. A spacious outdoor area at the back will be filled with plants and decked with quirky tables and chairs from an antique market. Giorgio tells me he’s going for a “Balearic seaside shack” vibe.
“It's gonna be a bit of a mix and match inside of classic with wood panelling and a bit of industrial. There's gonna be lovely lighting coming down. We’ve put in lots of effort. Fingers crossed everything will work.”
There’s not long to wait now as the restaurant is chalked to open on 14 October. We’ll be in for a sneak preview soon.
Cibus Ristorante 847 Stockport Rd, Manchester M19 3PW
Some highlights from the menu at Cibus Ristorante
PIZZA SICILIANA Tomato, mozzarella, Sicilian aubergine, ricotta salata and sun dried tomatoes £12
ORECCHIETTE CIME DI RAPA Apulian broccoli, garlic, chilli and fennel sausage £10
GUANCETTE Ox cheeks braised in red wine, served on mash potato with crispy parsnips £12
BACCALA ALLA VICENTINA - Stewed salt cod with white onions, milk, parmesan and soft polenta £12
POLPETTE MAGRE Vegballs slowly cooked in an aurora sauce (béchamel and tomato) served with rocket & chips £8.50
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