Restaurant review: Pizza Express in St Anne's Square in Belfast
Pizzaexpress, St Anne's Square, Belfast, tel: 0289031 9000. Pizzaexpress, 376-378 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast tel: 0289065 7772
You wait ages for a bus then two come along at the same time. This is what Pizzaexpress has done to Belfast: opened two new restaurants on the same day, one in Ballyhackamore, the other in St Anne's Square. If that's not an indicator of investor confidence in the two most happening areas of the city, then I'm a pepperoni romana.
But first I must declare an interest: the PR agency in which I have a day job was appointed by Pizzaexpress to help launch the new ventures. This wouldn't prevent me from deploying full forensic grade scrutiny on your behalf, but, just saying.
Thankfully, the scene unfolds like that bit in X Factor last week when Nicole Shertzinger expressed her hope to the contestant for whom she took a real shine before he performed, that "he didn't suck". He didn't and, thankfully, nor did either new Pizzaexpress.
Ballyhackamore and St Anne's Square branches only opened to the public last night but a preview for Her Majesty's press and food bloggers last week provided a chance to go in deep to test both places to breaking point.
The only spillages were down to careless selfie-takers upsetting freshly trained young servers carrying trays of red wine. Frankly, the service in both is as good as in the other three restaurants.
The company already had a strong presence in Belfast in Bedford Street, Victoria Square and on the Lisburn Road. They've been there for years. Staff I spoke to talk about how they watched young families and babies grow over the years to the point where the babies were coming back as young teenagers with their friends. I've seen this with my own eyes and paid the bills for many teen birthday parties and marvel at the fact that something which has such a middle of the road appeal still provides a magnet for judgmental youth. But when it comes to food, quality is your man. Add to this the fact that pizza has always featured as a leading food group for teenagers and young sofa dwellers, then it's a sure-fire winner.
Yet competition has stiffened significantly in recent years. Belfast has more than 50 pizzerias, some of which are incredibly good, on trend and taking the pizza well into the 21st century. Honest Pizza on Stranmillis Road, Green's and Little Wing have proven their worth with a strong, loyal client base.
Factor in the growth of the independent and the support for slow food, local produce and sustainable sources, times are tougher than ever for corporates like Pizzaexpress. Their response is to go as local as they can themselves, to serve vegan, vegetarian and alternative pizzas and to position themselves in communities.
The Cathedral Quarter and Ballyhackamore are distinctive communities and, while the first is more a destination and the second more neighbourhood, they are entirely operated and managed by local staff.
But are the pizzas really that different? I still rate the Romana Margerita with anchovies and olives among the last suppers I would choose.
While it doesn't feature on the menu and it's sometimes called a Napolitana, it does represent the pinnacle of pizza food. No component in this mix can overwhelm the other.
The super skinny, crispy, charred base, the sweet tomato sauce and soothing melted mozzarella play the perfect support to the salty anchovies and dry olive flavours invoking images of holidays on the Mediterranean.
The chain has upped its game again and while all the classics are still there - Sloppy Giuseppe, American, Fiorentina among them - there are fiery chilli pizzas, pizzas for vegans and gluten intolerants and some interesting salads and sides. I hadn't tried the potato nocciola, nor the polenta chips, before, but it turns out these are addictive.
The antipasto is remarkable for its authenticity: cold cuts largely sourced directly from makers in deepest Italy include Finnochiona, Coppa, Milano salami and spicy Calabrese sausage D.O.P; with olives, marinated aubergine, roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, sweet Peppadew peppers and dough baked with Gran Milano cheese garlic butter and pestorissa, a harissa and tomato dip for £7.10.
And what about something Pizzaexpress resisted for years, something retro like a Hawaiian pizza?
You may shudder, but look what's in it: sweet chilli pineapple chutney, prosciutto crudo, red onion, garlic oil, Gran Milano cheese and mozzarella on a white béchamel base with fresh basil, fresh parsley and chilli oil.
Ballyhackamore's interior is a funky mix of builder's yard chic and sociopathic librarian, where bare wood planks and doors are nailed to the wall alongside open books whose pages flutter any time someone walks past. St Anne's is more conventional, but as well lit and comfortable.
Whatever it is that Pizzaexpress does with its interiors, their designs seem to work specifically for a site and there is no imposition of a house style.
It works for me.
Hawaiian pizza 12.50
Glass Chianti 7.80