This very welcome addition to the bustling Italian scene in Belfast can boast a supremely talented chef and a reasonably-priced menu
What is it with Belfast and Italian restaurants? You mention a new one and then suddenly there are three more. Coppi and Il Pirata have been storming ahead of the pack with new-fangled interpretations and renderings of Italian food and this has been a blessing for the city which has been starved of decent Italian food. Then along came Giacomo's on the Malone Road, with a return to basics and tradition.
Now Amici Belfast has shouldered its way onto the scene, and a very welcome addition to Belfast's repertoire it is too. It was bound to happen sooner or later. My theory is that a top chef (in this case Ricky Crozier) sees his owner (Sam Spain) dipping his toe in a bit of New York style and presentation and nuovo Italian cooking and converts a disused KFC into a trendy stripped down trattoria, Il Pirata.
The place does well but chef doesn't like the post economic holocaust industrial landscape he's asked to work in and decides instead to strike out on his own with a classic Italian menu and a more conventional-looking restaurant. It's that circle of life again.
Amici is not to be confused with what appears to be an English franchise of the same name: on closer inspection, there are lots of restaurants in England called Amici and they are all independent. The Amici in Belfast is very independent and Crozier's cooking is up there among the best we have.
Front of house manager Joanne McBride is charm itself. Her welcoming and friendly outlook puts everyone at ease and the style of the place, a bit Shaker with creams and wood panelling behind that minty exterior, is distinctly old school cosy.
The location on Lisburn Road beneath the Djarna Indian restaurant means it will become a popular haunt with students and lunchtime office workers. The adviser didn't think it was ideal but there is lay-by parking outside, Ryan's Bar across the street and a wealth of doctors, nurses and workers at the nearby City Hospital to create a market.
Crozier also knows his Italian cooking, having been in front of a stove in just about every Italian that ever mattered in Belfast, from Villa Italia to Coppi. And some of those legacies are felt here. Small plates at £2.25 mean you can have a variety of things and make some your favourites while dismissing others.
This was very much the case last week when the adviser rejected the deep fried courgettes and sun-dried tomatoes but embraced the crab and avocado salad, pickled anchovies, squid and chicken liver pate.
All were plentiful and generous for the price (although a little more toasted ciabatta would be needed to eat the pate and crab, Ricky!). The crab meat and avocado salad was luscious, fresh and full of briney flavours; the crab outweighed the avocado ten to one by my reckoning. The silver anchovy fillets, lightly pickled, came on a bed of rocket and other leaves with a little saffron mayo and capers and were outstanding – cool, salty and slippery like they were alive.
Deep fried sundried tomatoes were a new one on me – is this a legacy chef Tony O'Neill and Sam Spain left behind in Crozier's repertoire? – and while you had to detect the flavours through the thick batter, they were fun and worked well with their partner of deep fried courgettes. The pate had the consistency of light-as-a-feather, melting butter but had all those earthy flavours of liver and a little garlic, very nice with the apple jelly.
Amici does specials and while the brasato al Barolo with gnocchi and turbot fillets with olives and wine are distinctly Italian, the pulled pork I had with spinach mash was not. And that's fine. I could have chosen anything from the pastas and pizzas, such as the tempting tagliatelle with spicy Italian sausage, tomato, onion and oregano sauce, the fusilli with duck confit and wild mushrooms in fortified wine or the spaghetti with prawns, cockles, mussels in olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley. Ah, the parsley, so good to see you.
There are main courses other than the pizzas and these are also redolent of older Italy: Sicilian breaded chicken with fennel and cream spaghetti, pesce misto: fillets of red mullet, sea bass and prawns over baked with lemon and tarragon sauce, baby potatoes and greens or risotto with mushrooms.
Lemon tart was as decent as any tarta di limone the adviser had when she was in Italy and a special of cherries in brandy with ice cream was another reminder that Italians do not have a sweet tooth and frankly can't be bothered with desserts most of the time; ice cream on a hot day maybe, but desserts, not really.
A wine list shows nothing north of £22 a bottle and a big glass of Pinot Grigio or Montepulciano will only clock up £3.95.
Small plates x 6 £13.50
Brasato al Barolo £12.50
Pulled pork £12
Turbot fillets £15
Lemon tart £4.50
Cherries in brandy £4
Glass wine x 2 £7.90