People love to collect things. It’s why we have museums and libraries, it’s why football cards, snow globes and elastic bands still appeal after many years and it’s why rich people don’t have one car or a horse, they have a fleet or stable of them.
This instinct also find expression on a collective level. Businesses like to have a broad spread of customers. In certain businesses like banks, public relations and management consultancies, a portfolio of clients from sectors including utilities, manufacturing, transport, communications and entertainment is a complete one.
The same can be said of cities and their restaurants. Birmingham and Bradford boast their wealth of Asian restaurants. London can arguably claim number one position as culinary capital with the best collection of restaurants in the world.
In Belfast, the portfolio has improved immensely in the last 10 years but our collection remains weak in some areas. And I don’t mean Michelin-starred restaurants (there are six restaurants in Northern Ireland that easily qualify for a Michelin star, judging by the quality of some starred French counterparts — but that’s for another day). No, our weak spot is Italian restaurants.
There is nowhere in the heart of Belfast, Derry, Newry or Lisburn that you could call a typical urban Italian restaurant that serves up quick lunches and dinners during busy weekdays. There are very good restaurants in the city centres, but they tend to be either deli-sandwich-coffee-shop hybrids or slightly more formal restaurants with relatively ponderous service that takes too long for anyone with one hour for their lunch break. But where is the place with gingham-covered tables, false grape vines intertwined and weaving through ceiling mounted wooden beams, false brickwork, fast and fluid service and a bit of buzz and shouting and sense of urgency that keeps those tables turning over?
Out on the Malone Road, that’s where. Villa Italia is the closest you’ll get to that chipper, Italian catering efficiency and hospitality in Belfast. It’s too far out of town to have any appeal to office workers but there are plenty of takers for Villa Italia’s pizzas and pasta around Queen’s University to make it one if the most lasting institutions in the city.
Villa Italia used to be ok, or at least 20 years ago we thought it was ok until we were able to compare it to similarly priced Italians in Dublin and London and realised, actually, it really wasn’t bad at all. The pizzas were a bit robust, the pasta dishes a bit too heavy but a recent return en famille revealed a restaurant whose food is lighter, tastier and qualifies as one of the best value-for-money places in Belfast.
Take the risotto starter for instance. Not easy to get it this right, the risotto was miles deep in those breathy flavours that come from cheese and mushrooms, and punctuated with the most fresh-tasting peas in a long time. The four of us dipped into the adviser’s risotto so much that a second had to be ordered. The polpettine meatballs in tomato sauce were just ok, with little flavour in either the meat or the sauce. Eclipsed by the risotto, it was never going to be a race between the two.
The following array of pizzas and pasta ranged from tolerable to very good. The pizzas still have a robustness that makes them more macho than most, but the adviser says the pizza dough is pukka quality. It’s just a bit heavy, she shrugs.
The pasta is, however, another matter. A large dish of spaghetti carbonara looks enticing in its simplicity. There’s no show-boating here, no decoration or ornamentation. What you see is what you get and as soon as the first mouthful hits home I realise it’s as good as any carbonara I’ve had in Rome or Florence (and a hell of a lot better than the Dublin and London ones I’ve had). The spaghetti is spot on with enough body and bite to keep it light. The creamy sauce is salty and enhanced with the sparse appearance of tiny bacon bits. The cheese flavours that linger long afterwards are warm, reassuring and subtle at the same time. I hope it’s not a one-off as I’ll be heading back for more very shortly.
While the food is tip top, largely, the service is a great combination of informal and fast with occasional and welcome interruptions seeking only to uplift the experience.
While it’s very much a family restaurant with loads of children and children-orientated menus, Villa Italia is also the kind of place that would do fabulously in the city centre. Its sister Speranza is a couple of hundred yards closer to City Hall but still too far out to capture that office worker lunchtime market. So please can somebody find the time to look into the creation of a mini-Villa Italia within a block from City Hall? In fact, town planners should insist on the inclusion of one cheery but good Italian restaurant within the town centre for any future developments. If they’re as good as Villa Italia, they’ve a great future.
Pizza with ham x 2 £17.80
Spaghetti bolognaise (small).....£4.50
Spaghetti carbonara £8.85
Carafe wine (50cl) £8.90
Mineral water (large)................. £3.25
Britvic 55 x 2 £3.20