Restaurant review: Zizzi has good service but is let down by the food
Victoria Square, Belfast. Tel: 02838 985012
Do you complain about poor service or bad food? How bad does it have to be before you'll give an honest answer to: "Everything all right, folks?" I know people who lose the plot entirely when they are served substandard food.
They are affronted and feel personally insulted that anyone would think they would eat anything second-rate and be expected to pay for it.
I used to think this kind of reaction was over the top and only those completely up themselves would be capable of being driven to incandescence by something so disproportionately trivial.
But, as the adviser reminds me, there is nothing trivial about food. Never mind its life-giving function, food is what binds families, friends, communities and entire societies. It's at the core of everything we do and everybody we are.
Taking pride in the food you prepare, no matter how modest, is a given. Take the humble mussel. My mum's golden rule with the popular bi-valve mollusc is to ensure they are properly washed and clean of any grit or beard (if rope grown).
She says cleanliness is the only thing about mussels (or any shellfish for that matter) that anyone needs to consider, so it's very easy to get it right. It is therefore inexcusable for a bowl of mussels to be served up with even a hint of grit.
"It's an act of disrespect and shows you aren't looking after your guests properly," she says.
So when my friends kick off, unleashing scenes of Dante-esque horror and fury when confronted with something third or fourth-rate, I have full sympathy and a good bit of admiration. First-rate, good. Second-rate, tolerable, but only just. After that it's MMA.
On this premise therefore, the Zizzi Italian restaurant in Victoria Square, part of a UK wide franchise, (currently made famous by the Russian shenanigans in Salisbury, England earlier this year) is to be avoided.
It's not even as if they have mussels to worry about. Simple enough dishes are utterly mangled and destroyed, the mouth-furring inedibility of some of the stuff they put on the table, a baffling mystery.
The problems begin early. A dish of arancini looks just as its description indicates: hand-rolled risotto balls with mozzarella, peas and breadcrumb coating.
The texture feels just about right and recognisable, but they are heavy, tasteless and claggy. I understand that large chain restaurants need to mellow down the flavours to make them acceptable to a broad public but these sad little arancini are nothing more than packing.
Much could be said about the tortelloni rosso. The adviser suggested that if the interior of a living room cushion had a texture and flavour, it would be this. I thought she was being unnecessarily mean until I tried it. Remarkably, it tasted exactly like what we both imagined with a hint of additional fire retardant material.
A pulled beef and venison strozzapreti was marginally edible. The sauce wasn't bad although flavour relied heavily on salt, but the strozzapeti pasta had been rendered down to an off-putting, mucus-like gungy softness.
All this is unfortunate for the servers because they deserve better than this. They are polished and quick footed, pleasant and helpful. (They did not hesitate to take the two mainly offending items off the bill).
The restaurant's interior is atmospheric and well lit, warm and bright and with just enough bare brickwork to momentarily suspend the corporate giant's identity and let you imagine you're actually sitting just off the main Piazza de la Repubblica in Florence. Momentarily, I said.
But none of this can cover up the terrifying reality that something desperate and irreparably wrong has happened in the kitchen.
We are blessed with a network of very good independent restaurants and Belfast city centre has far more than any other city. This kind of thing from Zizzi is unforgivable, particularly when only a few yards away are quality local restaurants serving excellent food from simple and imaginative burgers to fabulous creations from local producers, fishing boats and farmers.
If you're prone to losing the bap when you are served poor food, keep well away.
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