Restaurant review: Gusto e in Belfast
1 Lanyon Place, Belfast. Tel 028 9033 3393
I went to the opening night of Gusto e with the adviser, some months back. I rarely go to openings, because my invitations always get lost in the post. But then I'm not on any lists of desirable guests and because people are afraid of what I might write, I think they rather just leave me out of it.
So unexpected was the invitation to attend the opening of Gusto e and such was my willingness to show, er, willing, I accepted. Should have known better and should have stayed away, because it was so poorly managed that we had to leave after half-an-hour.
Half-a-glass of warm prosecco on a precious Friday night when you could be doing something joyful doesn't cut it.
What doesn't help is the tut-tutting that greets you at the bar if, not wanting, or expecting, free drink, you understand, but are standing there both arms the same length, you ask if you can even buy a beer.
Talk about first impressions! This is one way to wipe out a reputation before it had even had the chance to take first breath.
But three months went by, a new PR agency was hired and that reputation started to grow after all.
Influential and knowledgeable professionals in the sector were whispering great things about Gusto e.
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Marianne Hood, chair of the Institute of Hospitality and seasoned restaurant tsarina, took a large group there and was so impressed she told everybody.
This was the signal. Checking first that my adviser on all things Italian, Alessandro Bianco, was available, a table was booked and anticipation started to build.
Gusto e is a handsome restaurant, a destination kind of place, which not only brings a bit of humanity to the otherwise sterile environment of Lanyon Place, but also a distinctly authentic southern Italian charm and ability.
A small front of house team of three is everywhere at all times, smiling, obliging and engaging. Led by charismatic owner/manager Guido Cavaliere, straight out of central casting, the vibe is so stage Italian I immediately bristle at the possibility that this is just a show. Yet, Alessandro is straight in there with introductions, the chat, where are you from, I knew your cousins' uncle who had a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and so on.
Guido Cavaliere has managed to create a cosy feel in the otherwise corporate environment and, while the interior is departure-lounge modern, it has an identity. It is comfortable, exceptionally well-lit and has plenty of intimate little spaces and booths, as well as spacious tables by floor-to-ceiling windows.
Soon, we are being advised on wines (£5 a glass for some very unusual and rarely seen treats, such as the Fauno Bianco and the striking Italian chardonnay).
Bottles of Lacryma Chritsi, Serpico and Aglianico del Re will fire a cupid's arrow into the heart of anyone who has visited the Amalfi coast, Naples and the region of Campania and Calabria. There is a most extraordinary beer, made using the champenoise method. Ask for a bottle of Micaeli Rigele. It's unforgettably brilliant.
And then there's the husband-and-wife team in the kitchen. Head chef Philly d'Uva and Nicola Attaniese, her sous chef, are not here to pretend.
They want to make this work. They have four daughters in Italy and are now bracing them for a transfer to Belfast.
Philly and Nicola are putting out small, delicious plates of Re Nero black pork ham and salumi, parmigiana melanzana, a fried aubergine, which is then submitted to a layer of cheese, tiny heritage tomatoes, friarielli, small sauteed broccoli leaves, which are packed with sharp flavours.
Classic spaghettis vongole and carbonara are only there because I need to cross-reference what I know. Alessandro is impressed. The pasta is al dente, substantial and yet light, the briney sauce and clams with a generous pinch of saffron are full of summer promises by the sea.
The carbonara is as I remembered one night with the number one adviser on our honeymoon in Italy.
But the real test is the pizza. It's what Alessandro does every day in his Pizza Vantastica. I love its depth of sourdough flavour and the unsweet tomato sauce. The buffalo mozzarella is exceptional, creamy and has a mouth-filling flavour of rustic dairy. It's not wood-fired, though, Alessandro points out. Frankly, I think it tastes just like his.
Desserts are a big treat in Italy and no less so here. There are some magical creations, including a chocolate mousse and cake, a tiramisu so good this will be like the first one you ever had and a convincing mille-feuille.
I'm converted. From a faltering start to firing on all cylinders, Gusto e is a very welcome new jewel in Belfast's culinary crown.
Re Nero (ham and salumi) £15.95
Spaghetti vongole £11.50
Sp carbonara £10
Parmigiana melanzana £8
Pizza margharita £8.90
Bottle Micaeli beer £20