According to Salvatore Aloe, "St Francis of Assisi was a rock star. Our St Francesco is a punk rock star."
Maida is hometown to Salvatore and his brother Matteo, founders of Italy's Berberè and London's Radio Alice pizzerias. Salvatore has returned for the Ciciarata, the annual Saint's Day event where Francesco's most celebrated achievement – feeding the needy – is recreated.
It's done in impressive style on an epic scale: overnight a group of local men cook pasta, chickpeas and tomato sauce to be served to, depending who you believe, between 5,000 and 10,000 locals and visitors.
The plan is for the brothers to recreate something similar this summer in London, in aid of local charities. Salvatore looks around smiling. Quite how they'll do it remains to be seen – with open flame, and gallons of boiling water, the words 'health', 'safety' and 'nightmare' spring to mind – but with St Francesco on their side, anything's possible...
Midnight, Saturday. In the ruins of the old monastery, huge fires are built and tended. Flames crackle, smoke fills the air and the cauldrons of water bubble and steam. A team of local men will work – and drink and smoke and chat – through the night, until lunchtime Sunday. It’s an honour to be part of the team, explains Salvatore. Many of those working are in their fourth and fifth decades of participation.
Photograph by Gregorio Paone
Lunch is served
We return around 9am. The crowd builds, the noise level increases. As the meal is served, bodies surge forward – a few slightly terrifying pensioners seem to be the ringleaders – and the cacophony of pots, lids and cries of "Prego! Prego!" approach Glastonbury-esque decibel levels. Pots full of hot food are passed back and forth over people’s heads. We wait for the screams but this is organised chaos at its absolute finest.
The final preparation
Some say they've cooked two tonnes of chickpeas and five of pasta. Others say 200kg and 500kg. Whatever, it's a lot (and it requires amusingly large wooden spoons). Brilliantly, the chefs who are running the show are fiercely strict on timings, ensuring the pasta is still suitably al dente. Just because it's a feast for the entire town, cooked in cauldrons, doesn't mean standards can drop... For the record, it's smoky, hearty and delicious.
Before the meal is served, the origins of the feast must be acknowledged and the priests assemble to bless what we are about to receive. Hush descends – well, mostly. There's a short blessing in Latin, a small shower of holy water – and then the noise levels double. This sense of tradition – and expectation – is only slightly let down by the crowds gathering to take a quick selfie.