When quality restaurants begin to appear in the suburbs it’s a pretty good indicator of a healthy dining scene in any city, and the latest addition to Belfast’s blossoming food culture is no exception.
This Italian venture by Sam Spain (of The Barking Dog and several other Belfast success stories) and chef Tony O’Neill proves the point, having made the East Belfast suburb of Ballyhackamore a cool place to eat – even though it doesn’t take reservations, or even have phone number or contact email.
‘Il Pirata’ - nickname of the late Italian road racing cyclist, Marco Pantani – is a trendy place that looks like nothing from the road, and it’s a suitably surreal connection. This Belfast restaurants modest exterior makes for maximum dramatic effect though, as it in no way prepares diners for the uber stylish interior – more Lower East Side Manhattan than East Belfast, perhaps, with mismatched rustic furniture, beautiful stained wooden floorboards and slick white tiled walls providing the desired effect.
A long bar in the middle of the room takes the pain out of the no-bookings policy, providing something for customers to prop themselves up against, whilst enjoying a drink and waiting for a table. At the back of the restaurant there is a shiny new drinks bar, serving wine, pints and coffee, and also provides a glimpse of the pass and into the busy kitchen.
Friendly, attentive staff wearing smart full length aprons make customers feel at home, whilst explaining the menu, an A4 sheet which doubles as place mat and offers a selection of the food of the moment - bruschetta, salads, pasta, risotto, tapas style small plates - and some more substantial dishes, such as a spiced sausage in a red wine and tomato ragu. This rough Tuscan style sausage with fennel seeds and deeply flavoured sauce is a dish worth coming back for, with excellent gnocchi providing the perfect side.
A far cry from the usual Italian offering of pizza and lasagne, Il Pirata is all about casual sociability so there’s plenty of food for sharing, and the cooking reflects the Italian flare for simple combinations of quality ingredients, with a few curve balls included to keep things interesting, like the spiced pork slider (a mini burger in a Belfast bap) or polenta chips, and perhaps treats like whitebait which aren’t often seen on Irish menus. Beautifully fresh and presented in a small colander, on a rustic wooden chopping board, these crisply lightly-battered treats taste of the sea and are delicious with red pepper mayo, or aioli.
Classic desserts include the house variation on Tiramisu, served in an individual terracotta pot, and a memorable chocolate and hazelnut cake, which is delicious with coffee (and served with very good ice cream).
The drinks list includes a good range of beers (including local craft beers from Whitewater Brewery), cocktails and a modest but well chosen selection of Italian wine. House wines are available by the glass (£3.75), carafe (£10) or the bottle (£14.50).
All this and great value too – just the place for family and friends to meet around a table and enjoy great quality rustic Italian food, served up with a splash of style and a twist of tapas. No wonder it’s so popular.