Pizza Express opens two new Belfast outlets
Pizza Express is opening two new Belfast restaurants, creating dozens of jobs.
The Italian chain is launching a new eatery in the burgeoning Ballyhackamore district area of east Belfast - where Jamie Oliver is understood to be opening his first Northern Ireland restaurant - as well as another site elsewhere in the city.
The UK-headquartered brand, which is owned by Chinese group Hony Capital, currently has three Belfast restaurants, including one in the Victoria Square.
The latest branch in east Belfast will face stiff competition from a number of other Italian restaurants close by.
They include Il Pirata, Greens Pizza and Little Wing.
Pizza Express was unable to comment on the new restaurants, or to reveal the location of the second outlet.
But it is understood the chain will open both this year.
The latest set of accounts for Pizza Express (Restaurants) Limited showed that the business increased sales to almost £383m for the year to June 2015.
Its pre-tax profits have also increased by around 11% - shooting up to £76m for the same period.
Pizza Express, founded in 1965 by Peter Boizot, opened its first restaurant in London's Wardour Street.
It is the latest in a series of big-name chains to plan new restaurants in the province.
Italian eateries Azzurri and Carluccio's are to open this year, while burger joint Five Guys recently launched its first Northern Ireland outlet in Victoria Square.
Chicken chain Nando's is also to open a new restaurant at Boucher Road in the south of the city. As well as its two current branches in the city, it operates a third in Londonderry.
Pizza Express is currently applying for a drinks licence for its east Belfast restaurant, with the case due to be heard next month.
The new location on Upper Newtownards Road was formerly an Ulster Bank.
Pizza Express has built up a huge following over the years.
Observer food critic Jay Rayner is a big fan of the pizza chain.
"It's a very reliable product - service is slick, you can still have a grown-up experience with your kids and the price is not asphyxiating for what it offers," he said.
And last year Belfast Telegraph food critic Joris Minne said Pizza Express was "still the only Italian which does it every time with bullet-proof consistency, cast iron solidity, and the unshakeable certainty of tomorrow's sunrise".
He added: "But the remarkable thing is that it's all still very good value for money.
"The service is reliably patient, friendly and quick, the quality of the food is high, and it's a pleasant place."
Meanwhile, it is understood that ever-expanding coffee chain Caffe Nero is taking new unit close to the new Pizza Express in east Belfast.