When pirates hoisted the Jolly Roger colours it was meant to frighten their victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement! Well the Jolly Roger has been brazenly hoisted in East Belfast, by a new restaurant which has broken the mould of the usual Italian offering and is flying the flag for quality rustic Italian food served up with a splash of style and a twist of tapas!
All the talk of Tony O’Neil’s (Merchant Hotel + Littlewing) latest venture Il Pirata in Ballyhackamore has been lighting up Belfast’s foodie blogosphere like a pinball machine, so we finally paid a visit during a Saturday lunchtime. It was somewhat of a homecoming for me, as I grew up in this part of Belfast, but back then the food offering was a little less cosmopolitan. I remember Nibblers Burgers, which was the precursor to Arnolds and there was the obligatory handful of anglicised Chinese restaurants, serving up chicken balls and fried rice, and Capers pizza was the zenith of food offerings at the time. A Hawaiian pizza seemed so foreign and exotic back then! I was extremely excited to head back to my old stomping grounds, to the new ‘talk of the town’ restaurant which used to be a KFC!
Of late, Colonel Sanders has been causing quite a stir in the Ballyhackamore community, due to the monstrosity of a new KFC drive-through that has opened just down the road. So it seems fitting that Il Pirata, the antithesis of said fast food chain, has taken up residence in the shell of the old KFC premises, but you wouldn’t have a clue, as the interior is like something that would seem more at home in Sydney or Lower East Side Manhattan!
The outside of Il Pirata is modest and other than the small wooden sign hanging beside the door, you could quite easily miss it, but that is the charm, as there is the feel of Doctor Who’s tardis to Il Pirata. You step off the grey pavement, in through the ramshackle wooden stained glass front door and once inside, you are magically transported to somewhere unexpected. It’s hard not to enter Il Pirata without a big smile on your face and we watched a few customers do the same thing as they entered, a kind of wow effect takes hold, as the exterior of Il Pirata could in no way prepare you for how the inside looks.
Il Pirata exudes cool in an area of Belfast that possibly is quite starved of coolness, no offence to Ballyhackamore, but Il Pirata definitely brings some much-needed über trend to East Belfast. The interior has that unfinished feel to it, with exposed ceilings, reams of light bulbs hanging down from long cables, some of the concrete and brick have missed a few licks of paint and the floor is made from beautiful old stained wood. That stylish distressed look is everywhere and the furniture is a mismatch of old chairs and tables, of which I’m sure I spotted my old P3 chair from Gilnahirk Primary! The space is light and airy, with sharp white tiled walls, a long wooden bar in the middle of the room for easy propping and pints, and a shiny drinks bar with beer taps, providing a glimpse into the busy kitchen.
It really is like something out of the meat-packing district in New York, I was half expecting to see outlaw TV Chef, Tony Bourdain walk through the door at any minute, sucking on a cigarette, whilst ordering a cold pint of Coppperhead from the barman with his camera crew in tow! But as I sat looking out of the window, I couldn’t quite believe we were down the ‘Hack! Il Pirata is like a breath of fresh air. I did feel like I had been spirited away on holiday for my lunch!
Very friendly staff were quick to enquire if we were Il Pirata virgins, after which they duly explained the menu, which takes it’s lead from simple Italian fare, mixing small tapas style plates to share with bruschetta, salads, pasta, risotto and a selection of larger dishes. Now some Philistines out there might be confused as to the menu, and they might whine ‘you can’t have Italian tapas!’ Balls, why should you try to put everything into a neat little box with a neat little label on it? Hats off to Il Pirata for not following the usual rules of engagement to bring something new and fresh to Belfast.
For too long Belfast has been crying out for a good Italian restaurant that does something other than pizza, there are too many faux Italian restaurants in Belfast, Villa this or Villa that, with fake plastic vines creeping up the walls and shiny pvc gingham table cloths, claiming to serve up real Italian food, which is about as close to authentic Italian food as a tin of ready spaghetti! Thank the Restaurant Gods for Il Pirata, serving up authentic Italian grub in surroundings that don’t make me want to vomit!
As I was the designated driver I opted for some Pellegrino sparkling water but my dining companion fancied a lunchtime pint of Copperhead, a local pale ale nonetheless, brewed by Whitewater Brewery! Great to see local Northern Irish beers being championed by local chefs, the craft beer revolution is alive and well in Northern Ireland! Forget about generic tasteless fizz like Carlsberg or Heineken, this is the beer you want to drink!
We ordered two small plates of deep-fried Whitebait and Cazilli Croquettes, which came with roasted red pepper mayo for dipping. We also went for two large plates of Italian spiced sausage in a red wine and tomato ragu, with some gnocchi on the side and a plate of the slow braised beef brisket with Pappardelle. We just asked for everything to come out when it was ready.
The Whitebait were crisp and fresh, I could have eaten a whole plate of these, whole little fish with the lightest, crispiest batter, dunked into the red pepper mayo was a winning combination. The croquettes were also delicious, soft fluffy creamy potato, flecked with scallions and ham, perfectly seasoned, covered in a crispy golden exterior dusted with what must have been Panko bread crumbs to give the croquettes that extra crunch.
Next up were the larger plates. The slowy braised beef brisket was falling apart, beautifully tender and the plate was dusted with some flat leaf parsley and orange zest which really lifted the flavour of the beef and tomato sauce. The thick ribbons of fresh egg pappardelle added just the right amount of carbs to mop up the sauce. My only criticism on this dish was that there wasn’t enough of the sauce to go with the meat, which meant the dish was a bit dry and I could also have done with a generous portion of freshly grated Parmigianno over the top just to lift the seasoning.
My dining companion had the spiced Italian sausage in a red wine and tomato ragu, with a side of gnocchi. This dish smelt and tasted like Tuscany! The sausages were some of the best I’ve ever eaten, the pork meat had been coarsely minced and was packed full of garlic and fennel seeds giving the sausage that beautiful hit of aniseed that goes so well with pork. The ragu sauce was rich, deep red, full of flavour with a good pinch of chilli, and there was plenty of it, I think I even used my finger to dab up the rest of the sauce when all the sausage had been devoured!
The waiter had recommended the side of gnocchi to go with the sausage and indeed the man knew what he was talking about, as the combination of juicy pork sausage, dripping in rich tomato ragu, with a chunk of pillowy gnocchi, all in one mouthful was heaven on the end of a fork – I will return for this dish alone!
And even the gnocchi are worth a mention all of their own. Usually you get gnocchi and they are small little bland balls of what taste like ‘Smash’, but Il Pirata’s gnocchi were are at once light, but doughy and springy in the mouth, and there is added texture as they are lightly fried just before serving which gives the exterior a light golden crunch. These dumplings of goodness were a good size, perfectly seasoned and a pleasure to eat.
Our plates were clean, but there was still room for dessert and coffee. I had heard rave reports of the Il Pirata Tiramisu so that’s what I went for and my dining companion couldn’t say no to the warm chocolate and hazelnut cake served with vanilla ice cream. Served in a little ceramic dish, the Tiramisu was creamy, sweet, chocolatey, and right at the bottom held a prize of alcohol soaked spongey soft chocolatey goodness. At one point I was inhaling a spoonful of this Tiramisu with such vigour that I took a big deep breath in and a cloud of the cocoa powder was sucked right into my lungs, nearly coughed up a lung, but my coughs had a nice ‘chocolatey’ note to them – try not to eat the Tiramisu with too much enthusiasm, but it’s so hard not to!
The chocolate hazelnut cake was warm, moist, deep and rich, with a good balance of sugar without being too sweet, with lots of bitter tones of good quality dark chocolate coming through with a nice nutty texture added from the hazelnuts. Two delicious coffees to finish a lunch that has set a very high bar for the rest of the year.
Our bill came to £48, which is excellent value, considering we had two small plates, two large plates, one side, two desserts, our drinks and coffee.
This is relaxed casual dining as it should be – fun, down to earth with no formalities. I think Il Pirata have really nailed the current mood for dining out and I can see them gaining a loyal following very quickly. It’s an extremely good indicator of the blossoming condition of Belfast’s dining scene when a restaurant of Il Pirata’s pedigree opens up in the burbs. Belfast has never had it so good!
Man the rigs, hoist the main sail! Move you lubbers and get down to Il Pirata! Yo ho mee heartys! Yo ho!
279-281 Upper Newtownards Road – no reservations
Follow on twitter @ilpirata