Paolo Tullio: Winning the sweepstake
I've no doubt that, by the time you read this, the snows of last December will be but a distant memory, but let me take you back a few weeks. We had just had another heavy snowfall in Leinster and we were still waiting for supplies of salt to arrive by ship, so the roads in Dublin were sheets of ice.
Despite this, your intrepid reviewer bravely drove into Dublin from the Wicklow uplands to try out a new Italian pizzeria in Ballsbridge called Bel & Bellucci.
I looked, I suspect, like a refugee from Antarctica -- tyre socks on the car, a shovel on the back seat, layers of woollies covering me and wellies on my feet. Not an advertisement for fashion, but at least well prepared for the weather.
I was meeting Michael Colgan for lunch and found him already waiting for me. Bel & Bellucci is opposite the RDS in The Sweepstake Centre. A classic Vespa 125 is parked just inside the door, creating a sense of Italy despite the thick snow outside the door.
The first thing that you see as you go through into the dining area is a large domed pizza oven that's heated by a gas flame. I stopped for a moment to examine it and was greeted in Italian by the pizzaiolo, the pizza maker. A brief chat ascertained he was from Sardinia, his name was Ricardo Ragazzo and he'd cut his teeth in Ireland working in La Bella Donna in Donegal Town, where I'd been the previous week. Small world.
I may have been the epitome of unfashionableness, but Michael was looking suited and smart. Not only that, he pointed with pride at his feet. Not for him bucolic wellies; no indeed, on his feet were elegant and subtle galoshes, protecting his smart shoes from the wet. "Good, aren't they?" he said, as he twirled them under my gaze. "I'm thinking of importing them."
After I'd suitably admired them, we turned to the menu. If we were in Italy this menu would define Bel & Bellucci as a pizzeria, since outside of the antipasti, pizzas and pasta dishes there were just four mains on offer, all under €20. These were a burger, roast chicken breast, beef braised with Barolo and roasted sea bass. But it was the pizza oven that had caught my eye and we both decided on pizzas -- a Quattro Stagioni for me and a Zanatta, which was a vegetarian pizza, for Michael.
I persuaded Michael that we needed to try a couple of starters, so he chose the fritto misto, which included crispy deep-fried calamari, prawns, zucchini and peppers, while I chose the Sicilian speciality called arancini, literally little oranges, but are actually spiced and flavoured rice balls that are breaded and deep-fried. A large bottle of sparkling water and a glass each of the rather good house Barbera red at €6.50 from Piedmont completed the order.
Our starters arrived and Michael's fritto misto looked good on the plate and had been well done with a light crispy batter. I tried a couple of calamari rings and found that they'd been cooked just enough and hadn't toughened. But of the two dishes, the winner hands down were the arancini. They were as good as any I've tasted in Italy, were very well presented and flavoured exactly as they should have been. Between us, we made short work of them.
Pizzas are not high gastronomy, but they can make a fine meal if they're well done. In an ideal world, a pizza has a fine crispy base made with type 00 flour, yeast, salt and a little olive oil. The dough should prove overnight and is ready for use the next day, and that's exactly how Ricardo does it here.
Next come the toppings. There are classic toppings that every Italian would recognise and some of them are on the menu here -- Margherita, Ortolana and Quattro Stagioni, for example, but strangely not a Capricciosa or a Marinara. On the other hand, there are pizza names here that I've never encountered before, such as the one Michael ordered, the Zanatta.
When I'm in Italy I usually order the Capricciosa, which wasn't on the menu, but they did list the Quattro Stagioni, which has exactly the same ingredients but, instead of having the ingredients mixed on the pizza, they're divided between the four quadrants, traditionally as the four seasons -- olives and artichokes for spring, peppers for summer, tomato and mozzarella for autumn and mushrooms and boiled egg for winter.
Mine wasn't precisely the classic topping, but it was good and, most importantly, I was happy to see that the peppers had been cooked before they went on to the pizza, something that ought to happen but doesn't always.
Apart from the unusual name, Michael's pizza was also unusual in having ricotta as part of the topping, something I've never encountered, although it pleased Michael enough for him to finish it.
Shortly after that, his phone rang and he left the table to take the call. I ordered an Americano for Michael and an espresso for me. When he came back, he was beaming with pleasure. "I've just cast Maura Tierney in the next play at The Gate, 'God of Carnage'." "Who's she?" I asked. "She played Dr Abby Lockhart in 'ER'." I nodded and mumbled, "Ah yes", even though I've never seen 'ER'.
We sat over a second round of coffees before taking to the icy roads again and got a bill for €66.25. I'd enjoyed our lunch, the pizzas were well made, the arancini were superb and my espressos were good. For a winterlude lunch, it was just right.