Slice of perfection: We review Pizza Express on the Lisburn Road in Belfast
Pizza Express 551 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9068 7700.
Writing about Italian restaurants in Belfast usually gets me into trouble. This is because I don't believe we have very much in the way of quality Italian outlets here. I agree that most of what Coppi and Il Pirata do is good, but I am not convinced that the pasta they make matches the quality of the rest of the fish and meat dishes crafted by Tony O'Neill.
Amici on the Lisburn Road, Angelo's in Lisburn and the old queen of dripped candle wax, bread sticks and gingham table cloths, Villa Italia, in the university district have their own attractions and are always worth a rattle.
But still the only Italian which does it every time with bullet-proof consistency, cast iron solidity, and the unshakeable certainty of tomorrow's sunrise, is Pizza Express.
And yet I wince at my own words. That's because, in recent years, we have grown to believe in the infallibility of independently operated restaurants whose locally sourced produce makes them among the best in the world.
But there are some emperor's new clothes in this particular laundry bag. The Taste of Ulster guide is proof of this. Not all that is local is good and not everywhere which is family-owned, or independent, is the best.
Let's face it, Pizza Express, or at least the one in Belfast's Lisburn Road, just doesn't let you down. In all the years of eating there and being a bit sniffy about it, it's been like a faithful old labrador, shaking its tail happily at the merest shove of its front door.
You could arrive at peak creche time on a Sunday at 5pm, a time when the under-fives dominate the dining room, and still not fail to be charmed by the welcome and the apology for the queue.
Or you could be sensible and leave the little angels with someone and go a bit later to make the most of the pleasant ambience generated by people whose children are grown-up or elsewhere. Whatever. It's Pizza Express and you know what you want. Doesn't matter what time it is.
Except that, now, Pizza Express has made some changes. The pizzas are still there, in fact there are more of them than ever and thinner, too. But gone are some of the choices of other Italian classics.
There used to be more meat and pasta dishes, but now you're down to two lasagnes (veggie or otherwise), an aubergine bake, a chicken and catappi pasta bake with four cheeses, or a risotto.
Instead, there appear to be more small plates, starters and salads, reflecting the changing consumption habits of even the most conservative northern eater. And there are now chips (well, polenta chips).
Embracing change, I reach for the gamberetti piccante, prawns in a chilli-flecked tomato passata with spinach and plump little santos tomatoes. Happily, there is parsley on this very bright red mix. I counted five prawns, which is a bit mean for £5.25. Compared to Graze's garlic and chilli prawns for 75p more, which come in family-size shovelfuls and with sourdough bread and butter, this looked meagre, even if it was counter-balanced by those very nice tomatoes. An antipasti platter for two for just under a tenner appeared to be more generous, with a small selection of hams and salamis, olives, mozzarella, peppadew peppers, rocket and warm bread.
Pizzas of paper-thin Romana bases covered vast areas and were as good as they always were. Lightly burnt areas of the base provide a tasty, black and brittle acidity, the tomato sauce is never too sweet and the bits and pieces which populate the surface are high-quality.
Desserts used to be a laugh when they served those little mini versions with your coffee. They still do, but the laugh's gone out of it a bit, because they're a couple of pounds dearer than they used to be.
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 to sit in and enjoy your large glass of Barbera d'Alba.
What's not to like?
Caesar Salad £4.75
Romana American Hot £11.25
with extra cheese £10.65
with chicken £10.65
Leggera Pollo ad Astra £9.95
Polenta chips £3.95
Lemon meringue £4.35
Coke x 3 £7.20
Large Peroni £6.55
Barbera d’Alba x 2 glasses £13.10
Sauvignon blanc glass £7.75
Decaf vanilla latte £2.95