Photo: Jody Hartley

Manchester’s Italian community will transform Cathedral Gardens into Little Italy this month, creating a city centre oasis of la dolce vita with masterclasses, chef demonstrations, producers’ stalls and Italian street food.

Last year, over 26,000 people descended on Cathedral Gardens for Festa Italiana, and this year looks to be even bigger.

Established to showcase authentic Italian culture and produce, the festival is all about bringing the most glorious Italian food and drink to Manchester. It’s something Maurizio Cecco, Festa Italiana founder and owner of Salvi’s restaurants, is passionate about.

Pic Jody Hartley

“We have an amazing foundation this time on which to build,” says Maurizio, who makes regular trips home to ensure he’s getting the very best of the best from the artisan growers and suppliers he knows so well.

“Last year we were starting from scratch, we were creating something new, and we had no idea how popular the event was going to be. To see so many people come and enjoy our Festa was staggering.”

To discover more about the inspiration behind Festa Italiana and what we can expect when it hits Manchester, I accompanied Maurizio on a trip to Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento.

This year the festival will serve an exclusive and authentic taste of Capri, the stunning island in the Bay of Naples, as they bring what is set to be the drink of the summer to the city: Limoncello di Capri, made from certified, sun-drenched Sorrento and Capri lemons.

Limoncello was first created over a century ago on this sunny island by hotel proprietor Vincenza Canale. She created the first limoncello using fruit from her garden. Her descendants continued to develop the product and eventually trademarked the name Limoncello di Capri.

We visited the Limoncello di Capri factory in Meta, panoramically positioned on the Gulf of Sorrento, to learn how limoncello is produced, from the selection of the best lemons to the bottling process.

Limoncello di Capri has remained the same since its first serve back in the last century by Vincenza. The peel is carefully removed and infused in grain alcohol, imparting a delicious citrusy flavour with none of the sourness. 

Until now, limoncello of this quality has been a luxury enjoyed mainly by Italians. Now it has arrived in the UK, and Manchester is the first place is to get a taste with a dedicated bar at Festa Italiana.

Try a refreshing Capri spritz: limoncello mixed with tonic, topped with prosecco and garnished with fresh mint and strawberries.

Foodie festival highlights this year include a non-stop gourmet pizza feast – with bottomless prosecco, too. 

Neapolitan pizza is rightly world famous. It has long been an essential part of Italian culture, and last year the Naples art of pizza-making received world heritage status from UNESCO.

Pizza’s a serious business in Naples. Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) was founded in 1984 to promote and protect true Neapolitan pizza in Italy and worldwide.

I headed to Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba to learn more about the tradition. Established in 1738, it’s the oldest pizzeria-tavern in Naples and – according to some – the world. The eatery’s ovens are lined with lava rocks from nearby Mount Vesuvius.

A traditional Neapolitan pizza is roundish, with a diameter of 30-35cm, soft and elastic with a raised edge (the famous “cornicione”). The dough is made using 00 flour and leavened twice.

The base must be prepared by hand – rolling pins and mechanical presses are not allowed – and garnished with ingredients from the Campania region. Cooking must be done in a wood-fired oven at 430-480°C and takes just 60-90 seconds. 

In addition to the bottomless banquet, there are other ways for the city’s pizza fans to grab a slice of the action at Festa Italiana this month.

Coming over from Naples especially, Gianfranco Iervolino is one of the world’s most renowned pizza chefs and a regular on Italian TV and radio. He’ll be hosting a cookery demo showcasing some of his famous dishes. Mauro Altieri from Manchester pizzeria Proove will also host a masterclass to discover the art of the perfect pizza.

It’s not all about the dough, though. That other Italian favourite, fresh pasta, will also take centre stage at the festival.

Italian cookery author, food writer and demonstrator Carmela Sereno Hayes, who has roots in Puglia and Molise in southern Italy, will offer pasta making masterclasses for both adults and children. There will also be a ravioli masterclass by Pasta Factory’s Giulia Martinelli. 

Other Italian chefs flying over for the Festa include Carlo Molon, currently executive chef at the Sheraton Hotel on glamorous Lake Como, who’ll be bringing his modern and experimental twists on Italian flavours to Manchester for one weekend only.

There’s music, too. The Crazy Quartet from Naples will be flying over especially, while Inspiral Carpets legend and XS Radio Drive Time presenter Clint Boon will bring his Boon Army disco on the opening night with a set celebrating the Festa’s Mancunian roots.

“Festa Italiana is a celebration of my two favourite cultures – Italy and Manchester,” says Maurizio. And with the current spell of glorious weather looking to continue, it really could feel like Capri in Cathedral Gardens this summer.

Festa Italiana runs from 13th-15th July. Entry is free but some events must be paid for and require pre-booking.

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