Its casual chic and classy Italian cooking make this a must-visit restaurant... but just remember to wear your Sunday best
There are weekend days when “doing something exciting today” sounds like a death sentence. I enjoy taking the children to the swimmers, the cinema and museums as much as the next man but there are moments when something exciting need not amount to anything more than going out for a pizza en famille.
On days like these, the adviser and I put the children in the car and head to PizzaExpress on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. The adviser is an Italian at heart and expresses this through an addiction to molecule-thin pizza bases. Which is fine if you live in Italy. Closer to home, PizzaExpress is the next best thing.
What I love about the Lisburn Road PizzaExpress is the Boden class of family diner you'll find there.
Referred to by the adviser as Pizzacreche, this restaurant is the closest thing you will get to a middle-class family fashion court martial.
Everybody is lovely and young (even the grandparents), expensively but casually clothed, surrounded by model babies and very young children, and they are all checking out what you're wearing.
This is the pulsating heart of BT9 where looks count for everything.
Forget your achievements as a brain surgeon or your partnership in the law firm, your MBA or your house in France.
If you don't look right you will be dismissed as a steek. As a people-watching restaurant, this is the best.
That aside, the pizzas here are unmatched in Northern Ireland. They were always pretty good but recently they got even better thanks to the adoption of the thinner, broader surfaced, Romana-style pizza that they are happy to make for you with whatever you like.
Add to this the sub-menu of Theo Randall's (no, I'd never heard of him either) custom-designed pizzas, which are roughly oval-shaped and come on a cool black roof slate, and suddenly the modest dining place takes on a little added continental pizzazz.
The staff not only wait on tables with huge charm and efficiency; look closely and you can see them preparing some of the starters and desserts on the large sideboard dipping in and out of well-stocked fridges for the component ingredients and creating very decent little dishes.
You can tell these people are properly paid. A recent news item about underpaid restaurant staff reveals that PizzaExpress is one of the more responsible employers when it comes to pay, conditions and distribution of tips.
Meanwhile, the pizza makers, always on show in any PizzaExpress, do nothing else but let fly the pizza dough, shovelling freshly made pizzas in and out of the huge ovens all evening. When you're in a Sunday trance, they appear to be as well choreographed as a Bolshoi ballet.
While you can get all sorts of other stuff that isn't pizza, I've never tried their lasagnes or cannelloni. That's only because the pizzas are that good. And we have this addiction that will not be quieted.
The Theo Randall pizzas are quite posh and they are probably designed for those loyal customers who for once might want a change from the regular pizzas.
We haven't reached that threshold yet so it's regular pizzas all round. Simple margheritas, ornate Fiorentinas with spinach or Napolitanas with anchovies and olives are all perfect, especially if you ask for them in thin-based Romana style.
We do occasionally venture a step further and order the house Caesar salad. The first time we had this, the expected anchovy-essenced creamy and super-salty sauce had been ditched. Instead, there was salad cream. I winced that first time because I am a snob and didn't expect it. But the adviser, who is far more democratic, sagely said: “There is a place for salad cream.” And of course she was right. If the cos lettuce is crunchy and comes with decent flakes of grana padano cheese, little anchovy fillets and croutons, what's the problem with old-fashioned salad cream? (Respect to salad cream, especially as spring is around the corner and have you tried a tomato and lettuce sandwich lately with a dollop of the Heinz stuff? Three minutes of heaven.)
I mentioned starters and desserts, some of which are nicely cobbled together by the floor staff. The one that sticks out and beckons to me every time is the little saucer of roasted tomatoes at £1.95.
I've never seen roasted tomatoes outside the UK, mind, so I wonder just how authentically Italian they are but these are intensely red and savoury, chewy and glistening in quality olive oil.
Other starters that take more time and are properly cooked are truly surprising in that they just don't taste like something a huge, commercial chain of restaurants would put out.
Take the salsiccia al forno, a little flat bowl of hot sausage stew packed with little slices of Luganica salsiccia, cannellini beans and mushrooms in a chilli and tomato sauce that is just right for dipping the soft light panettone bread it comes with. If you close your eyes you could be in Rome.
But that's the great thing about PizzaExpress. It no longer matters what is authentic when it's this tasty. Same rule applies to a decent chicken tikka massala, which apparently is as Indian as a sausage soda.
Having said that, the strudel di mele — a whole apple wrapped in a light pastry with an optional spoonful of mascarpone — is definitely not local even if all the ingredients are. And the tiramisu is as unctuous and bitter sweet as any tiramisu made by the gnarly hand of an Italian nonna in rustic Sicily.
So if you hear the dreaded words “let's do something exciting today”, and feel a BT9 mood coming on, take a run to PizzaExpress. There are three in Belfast so you won't have to go far.
Rustica tomatoes: £1.95
Doughballs X 2: £4.60
Romana margarita X 3: £20.70
Romana Siciliana: £9.30
Caesar salad: £4.10
Tiramisu x 2: £8.70
Bottle red wine: £16.15