East Belfast is at it again. Just when we were settling back into our comfortable prejudices about the cold, stark and joyless east, up pops restaurant tsar Sam Spain with a new and compelling idea — a diner named after a dead Italian racing cyclist, Marco Pantani, aka Il Pirata (or The Pirate — because of his fondness of ear-rings and bandanas).
We’ve seen east Belfast do this before — setting up admirably good restaurants and bars and getting a bit hip ‘n’happenin’ with its hairdressers, coffee shops, galleries and fashion stores.
The Park Avenue Hotel, for instance, has gone from anonymity to boutique gorgeousness; Aldens has survived for more than a decade; and Bennett’s Bistro has been joined by Café Smart, Little Wing Pizzeria and one or two other worthy destination restaurants.
Spain, an eastie himself, has made a great success of the Gourmet Burger Bank in Belmont Road. And after his triumph at Barking Dog and the Menagerie in the city’s posh southside, here he is again, back on home turf taking on a defunct KFC with his good buddy, chef Tony O’Neill.
Spain has a passion for the east, and the Newtownards Road in particular. He grew up loving bikes and kicking tyres in Dave Kane Cycles. He says east Belfast is full of communities and they rely on independent shops, bars and restaurants to keep their hearts alive. Sure enough, when you look at the village centres of Ballyhackamore, Strandtown, Bloomfield and Woodstock Road, the east is very different from the rest of the city that, apart from Stranmillis, has no discernible village centres.
The other thing about Spain is that he can’t see a building without ripping out every last bit of it, bar the brick walls. Gourmet Burger Bank is housed in a cheaply built and stripped-bare former First Trust shed, Barking Dog is pared right back and populated with second-hand furniture and loads of candles.
Can you imagine what you get when you tear out the insides of a KFC, nail a few recycled floorboards down, put up some white tiles, industrial lighting units and the dodgiest looking front door with suburban stained-glass effect features on the planet? Actually, it looks brilliant. It’s like a cooler version of some of those restaurants in Manhattan’s meat-packing district. And it’s warm.
The advisor hates any hint of moving air. For her, the opening of a book creates so much turbulence and draught, it’s best to stay perfectly still in her presence. Il Pirata offers such stillness and warmth. Despite the rapidly darting floor staff, the steady hum and buzz of the busy restaurant and the constant opening and closing of that dreadful but perversely charming front door, this is a cosy and comfortable place.
The light at night is a bit dim (the advisor used her torch to read the menu) but that’s part of the charm. But once her eyes had adjusted to the cave-like conditions, what a box of new tricks she discovered!
There are all sorts of bruschettas, Italian spiced sausage, tiny burgers or sliders, deep-fried whitebait, pasta dishes, salads and even polenta chips.
Don’t go looking for children’s menus, chips or pizzas, steaks or chicken goujons. That’s because this is nuovo Italiano, or an interpretation by the brilliant Tony O’Neill of all things Italian, and there are small plate versions of everything.
There are no pizzas because Spain and O’Neill agreed with neighbouring pizzeria businesses not to compete with them. And it’s all terribly good, robust, tasty, satisfying stuff. The whitebait was a good substitute for the squid, which had sold out — Il Pirata’s first week was a big hit. Served with a light aioli, the crisp little battered bait was deliciously salty and plentiful. We ordered other small plates including anchovies, fried artichoke hearts, nachos. Nachos? In an nuovo Italian? Oh yes — nachos with mozzarella, chopped tomato and fresh basil leaves. Who would have thought?
The sliders, tiny burgers in Belfast baps with a beautifully tangy fresh tomato sauce and spices, rocket salad, chicken spiedini on skewers with a pepper sauce and outstanding cazilli croquettes (little bits of spinach and pancetta embedded in the creamy mash inside) all make great kids’ meals, although our 11-year-old was well taken by her linguine carbonara.
Il Pirata has much more on offer, which is why we’ll be back spending the advisor’s own money, but if there’s one thing to go back for repeatedly, it’s their own Italian spiced sausage, which is served in a red wine and tomato ragu that is as good as any you’ll get in the hills of Tuscany.
By the way, the chocolate and hazelnut cake will cause a long pause in conversation. It’s that good.
Italian nachos x 2 £5
Artichoke fritters £3
Spicy Sausage £7.50
Polenta chips £3
Pork slider x 2 £7
Chicken spiedini £3.50
Rocket salad x 2 £5
Bruschetta with parma £5.50
Chocolate & hazelnut cake £4.50
Glass Sangiovese x 2 £7.50
Il Pirata lager pint £4.50
Diet Coke x 2 £3
279-281 Newtownards Road, Belfast BT4 3JF (no reservations)