The sun is shining, you’re sipping on an Aperol spritz, you have an arancini on one hand and a bowl of freshly made pasta in the other. No, you’re not on the Mediterranean coast, but Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens.
This was how we spent our Friday evening, at the opening night of the annual Festa Italiana, organised by the team behind one of Manchester’s most successful Italian restaurant chains, Salvi’s.
Each year they bring together the best of the city’s Italian food and drink scene for a three-day celebration of the country’s cuisine and culture – and this year was no exception.
What was on offer?
There was a great line-up of vendors on hand to bring a taste of Italy to rainy Manchester. On the pizza front, there was Didsbury-based Proove, Reddish-based I Knead Pizza and vegan and gluten-free offerings from Purezza. There was also fresh handmade pasta from Pasta Factory, sandwiches from Conni’s Focacceria and Sicilian arancini from T’arricrii.
And there was no shortage of sweet treats either, thanks to Cafe Cannoli, Prendi il Biscotto and ice cream from Grandpa Greene’s, the Saddleworth ice cream parlour that has recently started collaborating with Salvi’s. Drinks were also flowing with several Italian beer companies represented, as well as a spritz bar and Prosecco cocktail bar.
Elsewhere, Salvi’s had brought their deli to Cathedral Gardens, where they had an extensive selection of cannolis, as well as other imported Italian pastas, tomato sauces and other authentic ingredients. They also had some gorgeous, hand-painted ceramics for sale. My mum and I could not resist and both bought ourselves new olive oil bottles. This was the first thing that made us reach for our purses, and we knew it would not be the last either.
Food, drink, Italian folk-rock and Genaro Contaldo
We wanted to sample as much food as possible and started with a mushroom and truffle Reginette. For those who, like us, had never come across this particular pasta shape before (shocking, considering my mum is half Italian), they are ribbons of pasta with ruffled edges that help scoop up as much sauce as possible. We loved them so much we also went back to buy the dried Reginette from Pasta Factory to try at home.
We also went with a vegan roasted vegetable arancini from T’arricrii, something I’ve had many times before as this is my go-to spot when visiting Hatch on Oxford Road where they are normally based. It’s great for a quick bite to accompany a drink or alongside other small plates for a true Sicilian feast.
We could not leave Festa Italiana without pizza so shared a Diavola from Proove, which had chilli’s and fennel sausage. The aniseed flavour balanced out the sweet heat from the chillies and there was just the right amount of char on the dough of the Neapolitan stonebaked pizza.
Of course we needed something to accompany our food and headed straight to the spritz bar for a limoncello spritz and Salvi’s spritz, which was a refreshing lemon and lime blend with a gin liqueur. We also checked out the prosecco bar, where we had a dragonfruit and mango prosecco cocktail, which was a little on the sweet side for me, and an elderflower fizz which was both delicate and sophisticated. We couldn't keep away from the spritz bar for too long though, and finished the evening off with a couple of Campari spritzes.
By now we were almost full and ready to go home but there was one thing left to try – cannolis. I’ve had a fair few of these in my lifetime and the ones we had from Cafe Cannoli were among the best. The crispy roll of pastry was just the right thickness, which meant you didn’t have to work too hard when biting into it but it did not fall apart either. The fillings – we went for lemon, pistachio and almond – were smooth, creamy and the perfect level of sweetness.
Our final drinks and cannolis were enjoyed while watching the sun set and listening to an Italian folk-rock band, which, despite the language barrier, had everyone on their feet and clapping along.
One very special guest also took to the stage to sing with them, chef Genaro Contaldo, known for his work with Antonio Carluccio on Two Greedy Italians, as well as countless other cooking shows. He was there to attend the special ticketed banquet organised in partnership with Birrificio Angelo Poretti. Sadly, we did not have tickets for that, but at least my mum had the opportunity to exchange a “buona sera” with the man himself as he walked our way.