Eating Out: Pasta police might issue a caution but Tony Macaroni's pizza's fab
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WHETHER or not Albert Camus – philosopher, author, erstwhile goalkeeper – really said “all that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”, it’s nice to imagine that someone who had such weighty things to be thinking about still had room in his brain to appreciate the beautiful game.
Similarly – kindred spirits, me and Bertie – all that I knew about Scottish Italian restaurant chain Tony Macaroni before about a fortnight ago, I owed to football. Specifically, the fact Scottish Premiership football club Livingston play at the Tony Macaroni Arena.
The presence of a branch in Bangor for more than a year had obviously completely passed me by, and now it joins fellow recent Caledonian exports Pizza Punks and Six By Nico in pitching up in Belfast.
This much Scottish influence hasn't planted itself here since, well, you know.
As big as its cavernous space in Victoria Square shopping centre, tastefully done in varying shades of caramel and toffee, is the menu, with starters, breads, salads, pastas, meat, fish, burgers, everything, testing the ink reserves of their printer to the limit.
In part it’s this massive choice – including squid named after Scottish singer and “our favourite regular customer” Lewis Capaldi and carbonara burgers – and the fact it’s a chain, and the fact it’s called Tony Macaroni that has you wondering, despite the brand’s protestations, just how good an Italian meal you’ll be getting.
And Tony does protest. While the menu is at pains to point out you can get your pizza already sliced if you want, it also declares: “Tony Macaroni recommends our pizzas are served unsliced for the true Italian experience.”
This appeal to authenticity might carry a bit more weight if it wasn’t immediately below the details of their breakfast pizza, complete with black pudding, sausage, bacon and a fried egg. Just like mama used to never make. Ever.
Not that it matters. If something tastes good, who really cares if it’s the original recipe handed down over the generations?
Take spaghetti carbonara. In 2016, newspaper La Republicca published a front-page opinion piece and a two-page spread in furious response to a French website’s one-pot version of the dish that, to be fair, did look pretty horrible.
Then poor old Nigella Lawson fell foul of the internet pasta police a couple of years ago with her cream-inclusive version that looked rather nice. Whatever. If it floats your boat go for it. I’m sure Nigella will be relieved to have me in her corner for this one.
I don’t like cream in a carbonara because I find it dilutes the flavour of the eggs and makes things all a bit too soupy. So, I don’t put any in when I make it myself.
Tony Macaroni does and it does indeed give the impression of a pile of spaghetti swimming in eggy, cheesy, creamy soup. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and it’s certainly not bad here.
The pasta is cooked well, the bacon is fine (“Where’s the pancetta?!” roar the carbonara cognoscenti. “It should be guanciale!” hollers its hipster wing), and the sauce has a pleasant, cheesy, richness, but that’s the height of it.
There’s also far too much of it. Any bowl this size of any sort of pasta would stop you in your tracks, never mind one of this richness.
Half the amount would have been plenty, but Tony is nothing if not generous and, so far, predictable.
The carbonara, after the slightly better than expected arancini – decently flavoured, deep-fried rice balls – and calamari starters, places Tony Macaroni just where I expected it. Perfectly fine, hardly authentic (not a criticism), basically Italian chain fare. Nothing great, but nothing offensive, and almost certainly nothing you’d come back for.
Enter the bread. When taking our mains orders, the server – one of a pleasant, unobtrusive crew – had upsold some garlic bread. Given the portions, it wasn’t necessary, but it turned out to be an honest-to-God revelation.
A bit charred round the edges, softly soaked with garlic butter but with the right chew in the right places, it was superb.
The sourdough pizza, this one with goat’s cheese, spinach and red onion, was massive and just about perfect.
As big as the carbonara but a world away in quality, the blistered dough shattered and resisted where it needed too, supporting fresh, clean flavours on top.
It was an outstanding pizza, made even better by not expecting it.
The tiramisu was almost as good. A generous portion (obvs) was lighter than it looked with a good dig of coffee and a sweet cream just holding together. It was another sure-footed, carefully put together surprise. It might not push the entire Tony Macaroni experience into the Premier League but, if you stick to the pizza and bread, you’ll be on to a winner.
Arancini carne £6.25
Pizza Caprina £11.95
Spaghetti carbonara £9.75
Garlic bread £4.50