Belfast man with the Midas touch turns his hand to pizza ... and creates another success
Belfast was always a great shopping town. Even when big shopping centres started sprouting in places within a short drive of the capital in the likes of Craigavon, Sprucefield and Ballymena, people still liked coming to Belfast because of the choice.
Then Belfast escalated the retail wars by unveiling Victoria Square. The only thing was that we were all broke, the internet retailers had started to have an impact (no parking problems and low prices) and today the shops have to work 10 times harder to get us back.
But restaurants are a different story. Restaurants figure prominently in modern shopping expeditions. Look at the array of eating places on offer in Victoria Square when it first opened. There’s a close link between the two.
If the way to a successful economy is through its stomach, then Belfast will be back on its feet in no time. Because where the punter might tighten the belt on clothes buying, the same cannot be said about his consumption of food and drink.
The average Northern Ireland diner is a much more sophisticated person now than ever before and good food probably costs less now than it did 10 years ago. The other thing is you don’t have to go to the fine dining restaurants to eat well, nor do you have to fork out a week’s salary for three courses and a bottle of wine.
One east Belfast publican has always been on the button when it comes to trends in food and drink. More critically, he also knows how to read the economic climate. Step forward arch-risk taker, debonair developer and catering guru Bill Wolsey.
Bill Wolsey is Belfast’s very own Sir Terence Conran. He is a man of vision with a love of beautiful things. He employs hundreds of people and he has left his lasting mark on Belfast and Bangor through the Merchant Hotel, Betty Black’s, the Garrick and a clatter of pubs here, there and everywhere.
He knows who his customers are — young and old, wealthy and budget, trendy and traditional — and gives them what they want. He knows how to design the right restaurants, what food to serve and magically, where to open them. He is also funny, charming and erudite, which is enough to make success-loathing Ulster folk dislike him already.
His latest venture is no less surprising than anything Wolsey has done because he has chosen to place Little Wing, a tiny pizzeria, in chav central, Ann Street, right in the shadow of Victoria Square. Imagine a sexy version of Pizzaexpress, a bit more grown up, a bit more edgy, and you’re starting to get the idea.
Little Wing’s beautifully timbered interior is matched by the charming euro-bistro-exterior, fully equipped with awning and tables and chairs (and ashtrays). The little booths at the back of the restaurant must be among the most romantic and cosy in the city, while the heat from the pizza oven keeps the place toasty. It’s the perfect place for a wintry evening. But here’s the good bit. It opens for breakfast. You can get breakfast pizza — not the likes of reheated left-overs from Domino’s from the night before like you might have to help combat a pounding hangover on a Sunday morning, mind, but proper fresh little pizzas with bacon and eggs and a dollop of tomato sauce on the side.
This is a new place so you have to allow the quality of the food to bed in. There’s no point in me telling you that I found the pizza too thick or too doughy or that there are no chips or coleslaw because Wolsey will be monitoring and evaluating everything and will conclude himself that thinner pizzas are the future and that Ann Street is the kind of place where chips, coleslaw and lasagne would be considered fine dining.
The adviser loves a good lasagne with chips and coleslaw, particularly when she needs a stabilising meal at the end of a tough weekend. Most of the people I know do, too, so sooner or later, this desire will be acknowledged, recorded and incorporated in the Wolsey intelligence reports.
Meanwhile, however, a breakfast pizza is too brilliant to ignore. Fair play to Little Wing’s manager Fraser, who the morning I was there asked me if I’d try a prototype.
The little pizza arrived with a dainty dish of what looked like freshly made tomato sauce. The sauce was outstanding as was the bacon and plenty of it. But the egg on top had hardened. The pizza would work better if the egg were runny, I suggested, but this created an engineering problem for the cook. He must have sorted it because the night I went a couple of weeks later a pizza was ordered with an egg on top and it was runny.
A simple bruschetta with chopped cherry tomatoes and olive oil was excellent. The toasted ciabatta slices were light and easy to cut through — it’s often the case that old and therefore tougher bread is used for this. Not here. The minestrone was thick and reassuringly healthy looking having been presented in an earthenware bowl with lid. It was more like a Tuscan bean stew but nothing wrong with that.
Little Wing can make more or less any kind of pizza you want. With a 10-inch margherita at £5.50 (all the pizzas are 10-inch, although there is a monster take-away box that will hold a two-foot one) and added bits at £1.15 your dream pizza won’t break the bank.
There is talk of opening Little Wings all over the place. I hope this is the case because if Bill Wolsey can maintain the charm and character, the service and the smile of the original, this is one pizza chain that deserves to fly.
Bottle Chianti £16.95
2 glasses Chianti £9
Pizza spinaci £7.50
Pizza w/anchovies/artichoke £8.15
Mixed salad £5.95