In the spirit of all things Italian, a visit to one of Belfast’s longest serving eateries offers up a delicious slice of La Dolce Vita.
The Giro d’Italia is here and while some are still baffled by its presence in Northern Ireland, the race has prompted enormous interest in things pink and Italian. Belfast, Armagh, the north coast and Dublin will become a corner of Italy as 200 of the world’s greatest professional cyclists slug it out over the three-day “grande partenza Irlandese”.
The Giro’s Big Irish Start gives us a chance, more importantly, to assess one restaurant whose presence in Belfast seems as old as the Albert Clock.
Many will argue about the quality of Belfast’s Italian restaurants preferring one over the other, modern over conventional, trend over tradition. Until five years ago this row could not have erupted. It was Scalini versus Villa Italia. And seeing as both are owned by the same family, it was never going to be a serious competition.
But then came Sam Spain and Tony O’Neill setting fire to the gingham and breaking the crockery with new wave Italians Il Pirata and Coppi. Game on. Now it was Venetian cichetti versus tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, smoked chicken pizetta versus pepperoni pizza and artichoke pasta versus spaghetti Bolognese.
And being cool trendy young things ever hungry for new experiences and keeping at least one step ahead of the neighbours, we embraced the new with wide open arms. Well, some of us did.
If by now the Giro d’Italia has not grabbed you by the shoulders, looked deeply into your eyes and convinced you to join in all the cycling craic in Belfast, it’s not too late. You might choose to get into the two-wheel groove and include Villa Italia in your culinary itinerary. The time trials go past its front door this Friday evening so you might have trouble getting a table but if you do you will see it is the same place as when it opened in 1988.
The gingham table cloths are still there, the atmospheric faux grape vines overgrowing within the trellises, stone arches and Roman statues are proud testament to what Belfast believes is Italian: the Italy of La Dolce Vita, the Dolmio ad and holidays in Tuscany.
Owner Tony Giordano knows what Belfast wants as well as Sam Spain only he sticks to the classic formula of no-surprises Italian. Villa Italia is all about comfort. Families happily queue for tea-time service and groups love the place as much as they ever did. It delivers what it promises: decent Italian grub at a very reasonable price.
I took the two teens there last week, girls who like the distressed, industrial cool of Il Pirata, cutesy Chubby Cherub, and urban Amici. They loved it as much as I did. Big glasses of red wine (a totally reasonable Nero d’Avola
for £3.95), cheesy garlic bread and a Caesar-like salad where bacon, olives, anchovies and sheets of parmesan completely outgunned the kos lettuce were an early indicator of big-heartedness. If anything, the salad could have done with more lettuce — something I never thought I’d ever write — but it was such an expression of generosity to see all that bacon and some other things that I suppose shouldn’t be in a Caesar that it made us feel loved and looked after, that the aim here was to please and impress.
A tomato-based risotto with seafood for the older teen was something of which Tony O’Neill would have approved. Here was a classic, well done. The arborio rice perfectly cooked with not a hint of crunchiness, the flavours of ocean and tomato beautifully tangy, salty and briney and the whole thing in mountainous volume.
The younger had the spaghetti carbonara. This was another lesson in textbook Italian. The pasta was firm and just passed the al dente stage (I don’t know anyone outside of Italy who likes their pasta that hard), the creamy, eggy sauce was in proportion and the bits of crispy pancetta spot on. It was a winner.
I had a simple margherita pizza with added anchovies and olives. Thin base, good balance and no stones in the olives: what’s there not to like?
Tony Giordano says he is marking the big event with a three-course Giro menu for £19.50. I’d make a point of checking this out. Even if you can’t get a table on Friday night, try it over the weekend and let your inner Italian out for a run. And remember to wear pink. Ciao!
Caesar salad £4.95
Garlic bread £2.95
Spaghetti carbonara £9.55
Glass wine £3.95
Cokes x 2 £3.80