Belfast has come on leaps and bounds in the last ten years. When you want to bring a visitor out for something to eat, you're not about to be disgraced like back in the old days. I remember going to one restaurant on Botanic Avenue in the Seventies that served me a half chicken which was still frozen in the middle. When I plucked up the courage to say something I found myself out the door in quick time, after having been made to pay up. I was only 18 at the time, but I was sober and now broke – the girlfriend wasn't too impressed.
If that happened now, sirens would sound, emergency lawyers would be airlifted in, a claims court set up and before your bill had arrived you'd have been compensated the price of a fortnight's all-inclusive recuperation plan in the Bahamas.
Belfast, for all the size of it, punches well about its weight in terms of restaurant choices. Except for one area: Italians. There are no outstanding Italian restaurants in the city. There are some decent ones that are fun and lively, characterful and charming, but memorable? None.
Perched above the Mace shop facing the Bot on the Malone Road, Giacomo's tries hard to do the full-on Italian trattoria and actually gets pretty close to it. The restaurant provides a step back to a time to when Italian restaurants in provincial towns featured false shutters over pretend windows on the inside, false grape vines twined around an overhead wooden lattice and candles in empty, basketed wine bottles. The design of Giacomo subscribes to this model, including plastic flowers in the hanging baskets, faux exposed brickwork and rustic-effect wooden chairs and tables. This look may reassure those of us who remember Antica Roma but it's one that today's diner has not seen in a couple of decades and, frankly, shouldn't have to.
But get past the décor, because you'll find that the cold bottles of beer are extra-chilled, the salads are lush, plentiful and fresh, the risotto is as good as I've had in James Street South and the pizzas are wholesome and generous – not thin, but not at all bad either.
Five of us went along on a recent Sunday evening and ordered various favourites including garlic bread, risotto and that Italian classic, Greek salad. All of these were exceptionally good. The salad was a big bowl of mixed leaves including rocket and lollo rosso, cherry tomatoes, olives and feta. Doesn't sound like much, but the dressing and the freshness of the contents made it stand up and sing.
The timing of the risotto was bang on: creamy, firm but not a hint of nutty crunch; the rice and its cream contained peas and tender, salty chunks of pork belly. It was comforting and fortifying for the advisor, who needed comforting and fortification this particular afternoon following an exceptionally busy previous 48 hours.
A giveaway sign of attention to detail and good service is chilled beers. I've a minor obsessive disorder about this. Bottles of beer should be ice-cold and, better still, the glasses they come in, too.
In this regard, Giacomo's passed the test because even if the glasses hadn't been separately chilled, the beer was that Arctic it didn't matter.
Pizzas for everyone were sound. Good, woody flavours in the crispy base – a bit too thick for me (the ideal dimensions are PizzaExpress's Romana pizzas) but nonetheless excellent quality – provided a very decent platform for the tomato sauce and cheese. The sauces can sometimes be too sweet; here it was tangy and fruity, but not sweet. A Cajun spice on my Creole Queen failed to make its mark – too weak to have any impact, but the components were good, featuring onions, chopped jalapeno peppers, prawns and other bits and pieces. Generous and plentiful, no complaints.
The advisor's Diavoletto on the other hand was a proper heat source with searing hot (but not painful) peppers and pepperoni.
These are more American-style than Italian but judging by the youthful clientele, volume is more attractive. I saw the pasta dishes coming out of the kitchen and regretted not having ordered a spaghetti or a lasagne. Having a quick look into the kitchen revealed a full-on, attentive team who seemed determined to make whatever it was they were making the best possible whatever.
Giacomo's needs a new interior designer but the food is above average and better (much better when compared to many cases) than some more well-known Italians in Belfast.
It is a spot to take the family to, or for a teenage couple to test each other in. It's remarkably good value, the starters are out of this world, the pasta dishes look very promising, and the beers are very cold. What more do you want?
I'll be back.
Garlic bread £3.25
Cheesy garlic bread £3.75
Greek salad £3.95
Creole Queen pizza £11.75
Diavoletto pizza £11.75
Atlantis pizza £9.75
Margherita with chicken and Parma ham £7.15
Margherita with chicken £5.95
Choc sundae £3.75
Strawberry sundae £3.75
Chocolate fudge cake £3.75
Glass sauvignon blanc £3.55
Cokes x 2 £3.50
Peroni x 2 £5.90
42-46 Malone Rd, Belfast BT9 5BQ
Tel: 028 9055 6688