Sweet nothings: Fratelli Ristorante
This new Italian restaurant in Belfast revives an old-fashioned practice ... with mixed results
A new city centre Italian restaurant has plunged Belfast's foodie hipsters into an existentialist crisis thanks to its reintroduction of one of the most clunky practices in the hospitality sector: wrapping the cutlery in a napkin along with a Quality Street chocolate.
I remember those occasional damp Sundays in hotels as a child on a family day out when the chocolate-falling-from-the-napkin was the highlight of the meal. And that was before you'd even ordered.
However, at Fratelli (which opened last month) the practice feels like enforced nostalgia and a bit patronising. But this clunking oddity will hardly stop Fratelli from becoming another commercial triumph for the Hill brothers, whose creation this is.
Having kicked off with the former Tullymore House in Broughshane a few decades ago (it was famous for its agricultural carvery portions served daily), the Hill family went on to buy and convert nearby Galgorm Manor into a weddings and meetings mecca.
Then the Hills came to town to spread their country magic and opened Ten Square, a magnificent boutique hotel (with a restaurant in which the same Quality Street sweets appeared) right behind Belfast City Hall. They since sold it on.
Their latest investment is a proper refurbishment and the interior ground floor has been transformed (upstairs remains largely the same). The kitchen is in the same place but there's a new bar, booths and more rugged furniture. The restaurant has a cosy, New York-Italian feel with lots of bare wood and faux brick walls.
The lighting is good, although some problems arose with the shadow of my big head casting my dinner in darkness because of a badly positioned spotlight. My mother-in-law, sitting opposite me, had no such issue.
The manager understands hospitality. He offered us a table I didn't like which prompted me to move to a table which the family didn't like and within minutes he had us ensconced in a booth, which we all liked.
Front-of-house staff are pleasant and aim to please. It's only to be expected that in the early days of a restaurant's life, four different servers will come to you at least half a dozen times to ask if everything's ok.
And everything was ok. Some of it was better than ok, like the pork scallopini that were tender, moist, full of porky, salty flavour and plentiful. They came with a very good tarragon jus and a handful of gnocchi.
But it was mostly just ok. The chips, described as fries in the menu, were big and chunky, although they were crispy and fluffy.
A tuna dip with bread sticks was consistent with exactly the kind of thing you'd expect in a decent lunchtime sandwich. The bread sticks were just heading towards soft.
The white crab on bruschetta wasn't bad, although the crème fraîche-to-crabmeat ratio worked in favour of the kitchen. Garlic prawn cicchetti and seafood linguini were almost tasteless, with any flavours salt-derived.
A lasagne was decent, large and inoffensive and the Romana pizza, supposedly very thin, was thick as a doormat.
Fratelli is ok. It is, as polite people like to say without wanting to cause offence, grand. It has pitched itself slightly higher than Speranza and Villa Italia. Accordingly, the prices are not modest. If it were cheaper, it might sit better as a middle-of-the-road place.
It's on Great Victoria Street, a main city thoroughfare and therefore not a neighbourhood. The people who will enjoy it are people who may not know Belfast and who don't realise that they are within a few yards of better and more on-trend restaurants.
The existentialist crisis will continue because it's hard to believe that some of those who will enjoy Fratelli will be those who believe wrapping Quality Street chocolates in the napkins with the cutlery is the mark of a good restaurant.