With the famous cycle race Giro d'Italia about to hit our roads, we visit an Italian restaurant in Lisburn that never fails to, er, curry favour
Everyone loves the Italians. And because love is blind we stereotype them as marvellous engineers, wonderful cooks, keepers of the cradle of civilisation, a bit mad, beautiful and stylish, prone to spending more on sunglasses than housing and mighty craic all together.
Now that they're coming over here in all their glamorous majesty and bringing with them the first three days of one of the most talked-about professional cycle races in the world, the annual Giro d'Italia, Northern Ireland is brushing down the front of its apron, applying a little mascara and getting the best crockery out. It's time to check the larder and tidy the parlour.
But with a pink invasion (the Giro's corporate colour) only weeks away can the north honestly say we'll ever be ready for them?
Leading the way in preparations is east Belfast's champion Italophile Sam Spain whose restaurants Il Pirata and Coppi are named after top-flight Italian pro-cyclists and whose menus are dotted with a range of dishes from Venice to Naples made from excellent local produce. Spain loves cycling and motorcycling and has a stable of bikes from the best Italian houses. He was ready ages ago. There are other Italian restaurants in Belfast whose quality will not damage the city's reputation either: Giacomo's and the Chubby Cherub would be sound recommendations.
But outside Belfast you need to go no further than Lisburn to find something Italian of quality. Angelo's, celebrating its 30th year in business, is still housed in the same cosy basement of a non-descript retail block just off the Market Square. It's been given a new lick of paint and polish and looks and feels like a pukka neighbourhood Italian as you might find in any Roman suburb.
It's not fancy; it's honest to goodness comfortable, spotlessly clean and managed with smooth and containable passion by new owner Richard Graham. Richard is an old hand at the restaurant game and has resisted the urge of new owners to stamp their authority and identity on their new venture. Instead, such curiosities as the Italian Curry remain on the menu.
This lunchtime Tariq Nabi, the Pakistani chef patron of the Khyber in Carryduff, and a man with a few thousand curries under his belt is with me to provide expert opinion.
We both like the restaurant's interior which despite being windowless is bright and cheerful, sparkling (there is a little leafless tree with tiny lights which prompts devout Muslim Tariq to ask me if that's a Christmas tree) and just naff enough not to take itself too seriously.
The menus promise low-cost dining with some excitement: there are lunchtime specials ("Two for a Tenor! – yes that's £10 for two main courses") including a spaghetti Bolognese, a lunch time combo of bowl of fresh soup with mozzarella and red onion bruschetta on focaccia or a slice of pizza with two toppings served with a bowl of that soup.
Other lunch specials are spiced Italian pork burger with spicy tomato sauce and hand-cut chips (£6.95), flaked salmon and sweet chilli risotto and wild rocket (£5.95), spiced Italian pork meatballs with penne pasta (£6.25) or creamy chicken pesto pasta (£5.95).
Tariq and I mix and match – the other lunch menu is posher. It has things like pan seared filet of seabass with crushed potatoes, wild samphire and mussels in citrus cream for £12.95 or a 28-day hung sirloin served pizzaola style (on focaccia, with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomato, basil and red onion salad for £14.95).
The starters are irresistible and we both have egg, bacon and soldiers except I have Tariq's bacon. It's a great starter with rocket, basil pesto and the soldiers are made of focaccia. The egg is perfectly soft and runny yet sits encased in a light crispy crumb crust.
But that Italian curry is really why we're here. While Tariq can't have one as there is chorizo in it, he tastes a spoonful of the sauce. One eyebrow raised he nods like the man from Del Monte: "It's as good as one of mine."
The light, spiced and deeply savoury sauce is pale and creamy and works wonders with the accompanying chicken and chorizo and scented basmati rice. I thought it was sensational and will be going back to Lisburn specifically for this.
Successful restaurants have a signature dish and this curry is Angelo's, with a flashing smile, click of the heels and a flourishing doff of the hat.
If you like Italian but don't like men in pink Lycra then look no further.
Egg, bacon & soldiers x 2......... £11.90
Chicken pesto pasta.....................£5.95
Rhubarb & ginger crumble.........£4.75