By Qin Xie, Journalist. @qinxiesays on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Tuesday 19 Jun 2018 12:00 pm
Im not going to lie – when I heard that there was a three-day pizza festival in Italy, where the whole town would effectively be transformed into an open kitchen, I (cue cliche) thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I mean, how can you beat the simplicity of a margherita?
The way the mozarella pulls apart with wild abandon to reveal the intensity of the tomato sauce.
The way that the crust, still dusted with flour, crunches slightly as you tear into it.
The way that the flavours, occasionally accentuated by a leaf or two of fragrant basil, so delicately balances on the palate.
Its messy, hearty, delicious soul food.
And if simplicity isnt your thing, theres an endless possibility of flavour combinations to explore. I should know – my homemade versions are always adulterated with ingredients that would make any pizza purist faint with horror.
But this pizza festival, taking place each year in the tiny town of Vico Equense near Naples, was a feast from the masters, so my bags were packed at the drop of a hat.
Festa a Vico was started 15 years ago by Gennaro Esposito, an endearing and gracious chef who owns Torre del Saracino, a two Michelin-starred restaurant by Marina di Seiano with a prominent view of Vesuvius.
It started as a social dinner for guests who attended a conference for chefs and restaurateurs in nearby.
Esposito told Metro.co.uk: Having so many colleagues nearby for the occasion, I had the idea to organise a dinner that was an opportunity to meet up but also have a moment of decompression.
Over time, the event has changed a lot in structure, in the offerings and events, and in the number of chefs involved (this year there were more than 400 in the three evenings) but the spirit has remained the same.
That spirit, as well as feeding everyone involved lavishly, is to raise money for charity.
All the chefs and producers involved in the festival donate their time and products so that all of the ticket sales for the food can be donated to local charities.
The charities chosen vary each year, but all are local.
While the root of the event is a good cause, the festival itself is very much a three-day celebration of food with pizza at the heart of it. How can it not be, when it takes place in the heart of pizza country?
On opening night, I went to Repubblica del Cibo, or the Republic of Food, which is the most affordable of the events and takes over the town centre.
For a minimum €20 donation, you get a ticket that offers you five different tasters, a bottle of water and, because youre in Italy, an espresso.
Perhaps a hundred different stalls lined the network of streets, offering everything from burgers to salted cod croquettes.
It was restaurant-quality food served from the doors of pharmacies and clothes shops.
Special signs highlighted the pizza stalls where you could try the Pizza Napoletana (Neapolitan pizza, which are always round and thin according to my friend Emanuele, whos from nearby Pompeii) or the Pizza Vicana (Vicos pizza, which are rectangular and sold by size).
There was also the rather dubious sounding Pizza Fritto – deep fried pizza – which turned out to be absolutely delicious.
Its essentially pizza dough thats filled with Genovese sauce (a mixture of beef and pork mince with sweet onions), shaped into a pasty and then deep fried.
There were people everywhere but the chaos only added to the atmosphere and the excitement.
On the same night, there was also a banquet in the enormous Pizza A Metro Da Gigino LUniversità della Pizza, perhaps the biggest restaurant in the city – it sits some 400 people.
The restaurant was where the pizza a metro (pizza by the metre) style of the dish, AKA Pizza Vicana, was created so that large numbers of people could be served at the same time.
Instead of shaping a single round pizza, you would make a long one; the length would vary according to the number of people sharing it.
I missed that dinner as the main event the following night was another banquet – this time a gala dinner featuring 20 Michelin-starred chefs from around Italy.
The starters were served as a buffet, and you could graze from station to station and eat as many dishes as you want.
Just when I thought there wouldnt be a pizza for the night, a Pizza Viacana, created by the three Michelin-starred Massimo Bottura, was wheeled out rather unceremoniously. I missed it, but I heard the biltong number was amazing.
A sit down meal followed, with wines chosen to match each course, before we were treated to the dessert buffet.
This was a much more extravagant evening, and called for a minimum donation of €280.
On the third night, the festival closed with a grazing feast along Marina di Seiano.
Entry was €120 but the food and drinks were free flowing.
Alongside endless pizza stalls dishing up variations of the classic, including gluten-free versions, you could graze your way through everything from grilled meat to deep-fried seafood.
You get a proper wine glass too, so you can top yourself up with local wines or beers as you munch your way along Marina di Seiano.
Just when I thought I had enough, a new section opened – a small area by the beach where 20 or so chefs have set up stalls offering dessert and pastries.
I dont think its possible to quantify the amount of calories or grams of sugar served up, but suffice to say Ive probably had enough of those Neapolitan rum babas to be over the limit.
If it all sounds like an exercise in excess, you are probably right.
But this year, a total of €270,000 was raised for six local charities, including several involved in cancer research.
I, for one, would happily tuck into a few more slices of pizza for that.
Other things to do while in Vico Equense
The quaint town centre in Vico is tiny, and you can cover it within an hour. But take your time, grab a gelato from Gelateria Gabriele, and enjoy the incredible view of Vesuvius from Vicos cathedral.
If youre driving – and Id definitely recommend hiring a car if youre staying outside of the centre – there are superb panoramas to be found at Hotel Terme Scrajo.
They have a private beach where you can take a dip in the thermal spring water pool. Confusingly, the thermal water here is actually freezing. Day entry starts from €15.
Of course, if its your first time in the region, you should head to Pompeii. But if youve already been, theres also Ercolano where youll find the archaeological site of Herculaneum.
While Pompeii was buried by ash from Vesuvius, Herculaneum was swallowed by lava flow, which in turn helped to preserve it.
The excavated buildings reveal the remarkable art, including paintings and mosaics, that were created almost 2,000 years ago.
Where to stay in Vico Equense and how to get there
I stayed at the Towers Hotel Stabiae Sorrento Coast, which had once been a cement factory.
Its a bit out of the way, especially for getting to Festa a Vico, but the private beach is postcard perfect and faces Vesuvius.
The nearest airport to the area is Naples. There are daily flights from London Gatwick with British Airways and fares start from £73 return.
The next Festa a Vico is in 2019 – I have a feeling I might be returning.
(Top picture: Qin Xie)