Il Pirata, 279-281 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9067 3421
It was one of those wet, miserable nights. So miserable was it that the only thing for it was to unbolt myself from the sofa and go out into it, defiantly, and enjoy a bit of dinner somewhere.
But where? Misery shrinks your imagination and even after writing (mostly lovingly) about restaurants for nearly 14 years every single week, my dulled mind couldn’t think of anywhere I’d want to be.
Thankfully, the youngest in the house hadn’t lost her zest for life and said the Italians were never miserable. We should go somewhere Italian. That would cheer us up.
The advisor, whose powers had also been exhausted, piped up and said: Il Pirata. It’s been years since we were there.
A table for three was booked by phone with half an hour’s notice, the young one offered to drive — happy days! — and within minutes we were in.
The gentle happy buzz of contented diners in a restaurant is like a blast of oxygen on nights like these, a tingling fresh breeze to blow away the melancholy and replace it with joy and anticipation.
The former KFC has plenty of white-tiled industrial charm, a look which hasn’t aged since Sam Spain opened it all those years ago when Ballyhackamore was a backwater.
Despite the utilitarian environment, which is still a cool look, it is bright and welcoming.
And then there’s the staff with all their patient attention and knowledge — there’s a lot to remember on this menu of cichetti small plates, pizzetta, pastas and risottos. Even the wine list is predominantly Italian with decently priced Chianti, Valpolicella, Soave, and a particularly enjoyable Appassimento from Puglia, (by the glass, carafe or bottle). Reinvigorated, the appetites suddenly blossoming and demanding, everything on the menu looked compelling. Because small plates carry relatively small prices, or so it seems, a selection of olives, focaccia, goat’s cheese polenta, arancini, spiced lobster baccala are quickly ordered. We could have had more: smoked duck breast, gorgonzola stuffed pear and taleggio tartlets with truffled honey, Parma ham and onion crumb will be for the next time. The plates turn out to be not so small. The focaccia is deliciously wetted with tapenade and spiced tomato pesto.
The arancini features wild mushroom, aioli and almond and parmesan on the side to provide big mouthfuls, easily enough for three greedy mouths.
The polenta and its accompanying chunks of goat’s cheese could be a dry affair, but the candied fennel and balsamic glaze provide the necessary moisture for balance.
By this stage, we have regained our sparkle and have come fully back to life so more substantial dishes are ordered.
Pizzetti, one a margarita and the other with prawns, olives, chilli basil, tomato and rocket make a perfect puttanesca with heat and spice.
The pizzetti are pleasingly roughly shaped and charred at the edges.
A chicken scallopine is unctuous and wintry, the mushroom and marsala cream providing earthiness and sweetness, the spinach and parmesan, iron tang and salty depths.
Gnocchi, fried crispy and served with garlic butter and parmesan fries on the side add the bulk I’ve been craving since sitting down. The volumes are there and yet the delicacy and detail have not been overlooked.
Meanwhile the Appassimento has raised everyone’s moods bar the driver who was happy to start with and who has no need for a pick me up.
We are enjoying the evening more and more and a little foray into the cocktails list (call me old fashioned, but I just can’t have them after dinner) results in strong approval and high praise for the daiquiri from the advisor. I’m on tiramisu watch (who can go past a tiramisu?) and this classic doesn’t disappoint.
Il Pirata has been a blast. The mood is high voltage yet calmly content.
And the quality of the dishes is a surprise. We had forgotten just how good this restaurant is.
It won’t be as long a wait for the next visit.
Polenta . £5.75
Pizzetta x 2 .£18.25
Parmesan fries .£5
Rust Bucket ale £6
Carafe wine x 2 .£37
Daiquiri x 2 .£19