There’s a new addition to the ranks of Belfast’s Italian restaurants, but can it offer diners a slice of ‘la dolce vita’?
When a new restaurant opens we should rejoice, whatever its style. It’s somewhere new to go, creates jobs and gives us something to talk about.
One of the best bits of the new restaurant experience is the first moment you walk through the door. In a couple of seconds, you have the measure of it: posh, naff, relaxed, friendly, dirty, clean, on-trend, desperate or intimidating. First impressions are usually spot-on.
One of these words will enter your head immediately. Sometimes two. I’m happiest when the two words “relaxed” and “clean” jump to mind unhesitatingly. Which is what happened when I walked into the new Cipriani.
Located on the same, black-spot site of some earlier wrecks including Fat Buddha and Zen Two, Cipriani has adapted its Italian offering to fit neatly into the split-level accommodation, which includes two mezzanine floors above the main restaurant.
While the sports-bar on the first floor is clubby and the top floor, furnished with Clockwork Orange meets Louis XV armchairs and loads of gilt, is an ideal habitat for fully developed lounge lizards, the dining room downstairs is relatively conventional with matching dark wood furniture. There’s a quirky hint, however, of Trader Vick’s cocktail bars about the place (the Polynesian themed Trader Vick’s in American Hilton hotels were a big hit in the second half of the 20th century, offering a jungle-on-sea trading-post kind of environment). This is because of the little waterfalls, bare stone effect walls and greenery. Italy meets Polynesia. And why not?
The floor staff are attentive, quick to greet, find a table, get you settled and offer drinks. This is the smooth front-of-house machinery we have come to expect in the likes of Speranza and Villa Italia — firm Belfast family favourites for those who want Italian. In fact, the Cipriani menu is pretty much on the same track as those two big Italians and will also appeal to families. But the focus, says Tracey who runs the front of house with charm and grace, will also be upstairs on live music, spuntini (Italian appetisers, like Spanish tapas) and straight-from-work cocktails.
It’s a good idea and should work well, if there’s nowhere else to go. But the problem for any restaurateur in Belfast is that there are 400 other places to go, many of which are now offering New York and European standard informality, quality and fashionable environment.
Cipriani is none of these. I had dinner one night and lunch a week later and the food ranged from ok to awful.
The lunch was better. Two of us, including a journalist friend (whose mastery of most European languages. including his version of Italian, is frightening), popped in last week for a couple of courses each.
Gamberoni in spicy tomato sauce with
toasted ciabatta were slightly hard but still had some flavour and provided entertainment. My friend liked them. The lightly battered calamari and courgettes were bland, but then they often are, which is why chefs elsewhere like to put salt and chilli in them to give them some life. The courgettes did, however, have that fresh taste of the riverbank on a late summer’s evening.
A linguini carbonara was good with plenty of creamy sauce and bacon bits, but it was just slightly on the sticky side. The penne with chilli chicken was light and tangy with decent chilli notes and a great array of black and green olives, which always work well with pasta and chicken. Both pastas were well timed and well cooked.
Dinner was not so successful. Apart from the decent lasagne, some of the dishes were appalling.
The advisor’s mussels looked big and juicy in their shiny black shells and spicy tomato sauce, but on closer inspection they had the consistency of those funny little shape-shifting dolls made of fine sand tightly encased in balloon rubber and which you buy on market stalls. The sauce, though, was very good, full of tomato and chilli flavours with added depth from chopped scallions.
The worst dish for me (and, according to Tracey, the owner’s favourite) was the veal with artichokes in lemon sauce. It looked scary when it arrived: three little rings of meat just about still visible beneath a translucent slick of yellow gloop topped with a lemon slice locked within, like the prehistoric mosquito trapped in Jurassic Park owner John Hammond’s amber walking stick grip. I could barely look at it, nor could I finish it.
For the same money, punters can get better Italian food in cooler, more contemporary environments (have the owners not been to popular places like Spuntino or Polpo in London, which have inspired the likes of Belfast’s Il Pirata and ACE, making Italian restaurants hip and cool again?). The Neapolitan chef Vincenzo Petrillo may be cooking what the owner likes, but we’ve moved on from this stuff, and Villa Italia and Speranza do it better anyway, if that’s really what you’re after.
I hope it works out and that the food improves, because the prices are good (less than £25 for lunch for two, including sparkling water, coffees and two courses each), and that Polynesian Italian vibe is funny.
Gamberoni (Spuntini menu) £3.50
Gamberoni (Dinner menu) £5.95
Veal x 2 £27.90
Chicken Valdostana £11.45
Bottle Chianti Classico £25
Diet Coke x 2 £3.20
Large San Pellegrino x 2 £5
92-96 Lisburn Rd, Belfast BT9 6AG
Tel: 028 9066 0610