When Massimo Tolve first opened his pizza parlour in Wellington's Hannahs laneway 14 years ago, he felt as though he was back home in one of the narrow, cobbled streets of Naples.
While he could see the laneway's potential even back then, he throws his arms in the air and remembers how lonely he felt making pizzas in an area that felt so quiet and forlorn. "Some businesses opened here and there, but no-one lasted long. But I loved this spot, it really was like a little Napoli, and I always wanted to be based somewhere special," he recalls.
In the early days, he struggled to get many of the ingredients he could easily find back home, like buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, salami and cured Italian meats. Today, it's much easier, and he says: "Wellington is now so strong in food."
Today the laneway looks different, too, as Tolve and his Pizza Pomodoro crew have been joined by five other food producers to be part of a buzzing neighbourhood that is fast becoming a foodie destination. Officially known as Leeds St, Tolve likens it to a side street in Naples, while others have nicknamed it Little Portland.
Joseph Slater, of Six Barrel Soda Company, is fizzing carbonated water in his soda factory/cafe on the edge of the laneway, atop the junction of Eva and Ghuznee streets. Slater and his team came to the food quarter next, and he says: "It's similar to the laneways in Melbourne, but here it's producer focused. It's also a throwback to the time before food production moved out of the city to areas like the Hutt and Seatoun. While those places are still around, this has a real artisan feel."
Up the laneway, Pizza Pomodoro is selling its pizzas at Goldings Free Dive, an eclectic bar further up the laneway, run by Sean Golding, a former Weta prop designer.
Across from the craft beer bar, where the local foodie businesses hold staff meetings, you can spy cocoa beans being roasted, cracked, winnowed and turned into delicious organic, Fair Trade chocolate, the smell of which wafts through the laneway linking Ghuznee and Dixon streets.
Wandering further up the laneway, towards Ghuznee St, freshly baked bread is being pulled out of the ovens at Leeds Street Bakery, while next door, coffee beans are being ground at Red Rabbit Coffee Co.
Former lawyer Roman Jewell is churning nuts into his Fix and Fogg peanut butter in the laneway, and selling jars from his shop. On Sunday night, the food producers got together to showcase their neighbourhood in a sit-down banquet as part of Visa Wellington On a Plate.
It was their first official collaboration, when they served a four-course menu at long trestle tables beneath a beautifully lit bedouin tent.
Walking into the setting, diners were served Six Barrel Soda cocktails, followed by wine and beer from Goldings Free Dive. Entrees were a true collaboration, made by Leeds Street Bakery, Goldings Free Dive Bar, and newcomer Egmont Street Eatery (being run by caterer Simon Pepping, which is due to open on nearby Egmont Street later this year).
Tolve and his team wandered over with pizzas in boxes from their pizzeria, while the main courses of beef brisket and pork belly were cooked by Leeds Street Bakery and Egmont Street Eatery respectively.
The dessert sparked cheers when it came out - hanging off handmade trees were chocolate maker Rochelle Harrison's creations of Leeds Street brioche with chocolate, smothered in Fix and Fogg peanut butter and All Good Organics banana cream.
The banquet was a true sign of community collaboration that's already happening on the lane. Each day, Leeds Street Bakery sells bread through a doorway into a shared retail space at Red Rabbit roastery.
When serving sandwiches, Six Barrel Soda wanders up the laneway and uses hot baked goods straight out of Leeds Street Bakery's oven. The bakery owner, Ti Kouka chef Shepherd Elliott, says: "The Hannahs laneway has a great group of like- minded business owners, all trying to be the best at what they do, while helping each other as much as we can."
At Wellington Chocolate Factory, peanut butter chocolate is made out of cocoa beans and Fix and Fogg peanut butter. Meetings are held at the bar. Harrison is often pouring fellow foodie dwellers mugs of hot chocolate.
"We all came to the laneway rather organically, but we now work so closely together," says Harrison, who opened the Wellington Chocolate Factory three days before Christmas.
"When we first moved in here, we all said we have to do a banquet or a laneway party and the time was right to have one during Wellington on a Plate."
Harrison was a pastry chef for many years at restaurants and cafes around Wellington until she decided to make chocolate.
In the light-filled space where shoes were once made on old machines, bags of beans are lined up near the front door, all holding beans from different countries - cocoa from Magadascar, bags piled up from Trinidad and Tobago, and Peru.
Later this year, beans will sail over from Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, where Harrison has recently signed up a cocoa farmer.
Running the business with co- owner Gabe Davidson, she says: "I saw a gap in the market for Fair Trade organic chocolate. It's a bit like craft beer, craft chocolate is now really taking off."
Visitors stop in to buy and taste the chocolate, and they can watch beans being roasted and view melting chocolate whirling around in large vats behind a window in the large, light-filled factory.
But it's still a small scale, artisan operation, where employees wearing quaint headscarves wrap blocks of chocolate in the open plan kitchen.
EACH week, the team makes 120 kilograms of chocolate - an 1000 per cent growth since January. "We make everything from the bean to the bar," she says.
With flavours like salty brittle caramel, hazelnut and craft beer, Harrison is also on a quest to educate chocolate lovers about the origins of this delicacy, and the factory is open for tours.
It's the same story at Six Barrel Soda, which is also a factory cum cafe, as well as an office.
When Life visits, customers are sipping bottles of syrupy soda and eating morsels (breads from Leeds Street Bakery) while Slater and his team make batches of soda.
Boxes of soda are piled up against walls, and empty bottles sit in crates in any spare space where there isn't a chair or table.
In the open plan kitchen, the soda is being handmade - Slater walks across and gives a celery and ginger syrup a stir on the stove. There's a quaint bottling machine on the bench, along with a fruit squeezer for fruit zests like limes.
With 10 flavours along with seasonal ones, like grapefruit and hops, the sodas are sold as concentrated syrups and also carbonated drinks.
Slater remembers the days when he used to sit in Eva Dixon Cafe, and stare across at Pigeon Park over a cigarette and cup of coffee. He and his business partner Mike Stewart opened the Monterey bar in Newtown four years ago, and began thinking about how non-drinkers were poorly served by the non- alcoholic drinks available so they began making their own cocktail syrups. "I really felt like people had to go out and drink crap drinks if they chose not to drink alcohol," he says.
"We've got all these great fruits here, so we thought we should use them. Some of the artificial syrups that are used are just poison."
Two years ago, says Slater, "it was us and Massimo. Now people are clamouring to be here."
- The Dominion Post
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