Eating Out: All the Italian you could want... from A to Zizzi
IT’S become a bit of a cliché that the longer a restaurant menu the more trepidation you should approach ordering from it with. Page after page of starters, meats, fish and assorted bits and pieces aren't going to herald a dining success. Surely the kitchen can't get that many dishes right?
It's far more encouraging to find somewhere that offers far fewer options as, you would hope, concentration on a limited number of dishes is likely to produce a really good limited number of dishes. Hopefully. You don't need to go quite as far as the Alabama diner in My Cousin Vinny whose menu simply read "Breakfast $1.99, Lunch $2.49, Dinner $3.49", but a little restraint can go a long way.
Zizzi, the UK chain which opened an outpost in Belfast's Victoria Square, saves its restraint for its semi-rustic, tasteful décor. The menu, on the other hand, is a beast of a thing and, although its contents are buttressed by variations on a theme – once you've made a pizza or pasta, what's the harm in offering plenty of things to throw on to/into it – it takes a bit of navigating.
Ignoring the drinks, there are 13 different menu headings alone, with 77 dishes to choose from, not including sides. If this thing gets made into a film they better bank on it being at least a two-parter so, when the obligatory “Do you need a few more minutes?” enquiry came from the first of a quartet of impeccable waiting staff it was more than welcome.
A fondue starter of gorgonzola, pecorino and gruyere arrived with four crusty balls of garlic bread and managed to taste like all its constituent cheeses. It was good, but paled in comparison to the fritto misto. The crunchy, deep fried rings of squid, fillets of anchovy, and prawns obviously went straight from fryer to plate to table. Not a touch of grease and still hot enough to require some dancing around the mouth with every bite. The deep fried artichoke was just as impressive and the whole lot was helped along by the pungent aioli.
The standard was maintained in the pizza, a winter special that left out the tomato sauce and replaced it with a butternut squash puree. On top of that were treacle-sweet balsamic roast onions, roasted squash and mozzarella. It was finished with slightly sharp goat’s cheese, pesto and pine nuts. It was the perfect thing for these warmer than you expect January days that can still bring enough bite with them to require a little sweet soothing.
The lamb meatballs al forno weren’t so soothing. Described on the that big ol’ menu as “torn roast lamb and red pepper meatballs” they were clearly minced, which is absolutely fine but for the fact the kick of chilli in the meat took over the flavour. They were decent, as was the pasta they came in, though the cherry tomatoes diluted the seasoning as they were broken down into the sauce, leaving the chilli – with the occasional appearance from a few whole roasted garlic cloves – the predominant impression. It wasn’t bad at all; it just wasn’t as good as everything else.
The tiramisu did everything you’d expect a solid tiramisu to do – leave you wondering half-way through it if you did the right thing ordering it, only to be scraping the plate feverishly not long later.
The selection of gelato – bigged up on the menu as the smoothest thing since Cary Grant – tasted great, with the best flavour coming from a honey, sea salt and mascarpone scoop, but the “super smooth” texture they boasted about was lacking. The vanilla option was far better, without a hint of ice crystals, and the strawberry sorbet also hit the spot. A sharp, sweet lemon curd proved the best friend of everybody in the bowl – or rather the metal martini glass.
Zizzi isn’t reinventing the wheel, or a plate of pasta, and it’s not difficult to find other places in Belfast offering much more interesting Italian food, but what it does it does well. If you can’t find something on its menu to please you, then you’re probably not looking hard enough.
Fritto misto £7.75
Funduta formaggi £6.25
Pizza Zucca £9.95
Meatballs al forno £11.25
Tuscan potatoes £3.50
Lemon curd sauce £1
Messina beer £4.25
Winter Cosmo £6.25
Zizzi (www.zizzi.co.uk) Victoria Square, Belfast 028 9031 9855