Pizza Express opened two new NI branches today, one in the city centre at St. Anne's, the cathedral quarter, and one in Ballyhackamore. The location is on the right driving into the city, at the little row of shops set back from the road.
We live in Bangor & previously would drive through Belfast & up to the Lisburn Road branch, why? The free parking! So now there's a closer restaurant on this side of the city, with no need to park in Belfast city centre & have to pay.
The first impression walking in to the Ballyhackamore Pizza Express is just 'wow'. The decorative wooden ceilings, panelled walls, booths & book features coupled with the traditional clean & open spacious Pizza Express aesthetic you find in any of their restaurants just works.
It wasn't until I overheard the manager speaking to another table of diners about the C.S. Lewis theme I realised- the walls aren't panels- they are wardrobes! The well-loved author of 'The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe' and 'Chronicles of Narnia' was born in the East Belfast area. I really love the fact Pizza Express has taken note of the local heritage & whilst this isn't an out & out 'themed' restaurant, it's just the sort of quirk that goes down well in my book.
I said before the restaurant is spacious, so bringing prams along is not a problem. I always think of Pizza Express as your toddler's 'starter restaurant', as it was certainly the first experience Smix had regularly eating somewhere where he had courses, choices & felt welcome.
There is a dedicated children's menu of three courses for £6.95, but that's not just what makes Pizza Express so popular with families. It's genuinely a kid-friendly place, where you aren't going to get glares if your child is a bit over excited. The kids' menu doubles up as a fun activity sheet, complete with stickers, social media competitions, puzzles & white space for drawing.
This is the child meal starter. Dough balls, garlic butter & crunchy veg. Pizza Express Lisburn Road was where Smix started his dough ball addiction, and he gives the Ballyhackamore versions a thumbs up.
Adults can begin with dough balls too, or bruschetta, calamari rings, and the usual Italian treats including antipasto sharing platters.
Because we were trying something new, I tried the 'Prosciutto e Melone' from the summer menu.
This was REALLY GOOD. So fresh but with the prosciutto supplying your first taste of the authentic Italian ingredients & flavours. Also worth noting you get a serious amount of meat, they aren't doing it by halves, even though it is a starter.
Moving on to main courses. There are salads (the Niçoise is my usual go to main course in fact), pastas, calzone and three types of pizza. You can choose a regular classic pizza, a romana, or a leggera.
With the romana they take the dough and toss it for longer to make the pizza larger & thinner, so it bakes crispier.
The leggera is the calorie counter's dream- a pizza all to yourself and it's UNDER 600 CALORIES.
When I get pizza rather than the salad & dough sticks, I pick the leggera option. This is because there are benefits above that of just being a less calorific meal. I like to partake in the three course experience, and if I try to eat a starter, a full size main course pizza & a dessert & coffee- I'm almost fit to burst. So I prefer to get a starter, the leggera, and a dessert than to blow my entire stomach space on just my main course (tactical eating!). It means I'm still eating a lot of calories, but it means I can actually experience the different dishes along the way.
The other reason besides any notion of dieting, is the fact the centre of the pizza is salad. I always take salad with my pizza if I can, so rather than having to order a side salad, these come already loaded with one. Handy!
Smix always and forever chooses the pepperoni main course pizza, which is a good size for him. The kids' menu also has a selection of pastas, and you can add whatever pizza toppings you wish to the couple of varieties on the menu. Smix used to love olives when he was little, so we would add those to his pizza. It gives kids a chance to experiment and try ingredients they might not have a chance to elsewhere. He's also a total Parmesan fiend, and Pizza Express give you it free and fresh.
Next, chips, but not just any ordinary chips. And this will expose my lack of food blogging credentials, if there were any notions I was a foodie in the first place.
They are 'polenta chips' baked with Gean Milano cheese. Now to me they looked like, and pretty much tasted like 'fancy chips'. But I was chatting to the waitress about them, because they are new to the menu & I hadn't tried them before & she explained they are made from wheat- and not a potato in sight!
It's hard to even describe what they are like, so I will cop out and simply say that if you visit Pizza Express soon, get a side of them to share and tweet me (@rudedoodle) what you make of them! They were good, but my little N.Irish head found the prospect of non-potato chips hard to get around!
Finally, dessert. Smix wanted a full sized dessert, so I will just mention that included in the kids' meal you do get a choice of desserts, pictured below.
However Smix's favourite is chocolate fudge cake, and he says this was a good one.
I usually go for a dolcetti dessert, and again it's a clever little Pizza Express menu option for people like me who can't eat massive meals but simply have to have 'afters'!
They are mini-desserts that come with your choice of tea or coffee, and again there is a low calorie option under 100 cals if you are watching your weight.
However today I thought I would try the Eton Mess cheesecake from the summer menu, as I hadn't tried it before. Another top tip- always get the mascarpone rather than ice cream or cream when you are in a Pizza Express- you'll thank me.
I actually was disappointed with this one course, and it was the taste. There is just way too much going on in that small dish. You've the pavlova type concoction of the Eton Mess, but then it's laid on a layer of dulce de leche, then a cheesecake base. It tastes like about three desserts at once, and too sweet for me. I think I would go back to the chocolate brownie or the cake Smix got. Sorry Pizza Express!
So, fancy trying out the new Ballyhackamore branch yourself? Or the St. Anne's venue? Well until the 16th September you can get 30% off your food in ANY of the Belfast restaurants. That's Mon-Thurs or after 5pm on Sunday.
Not based in NI? Well the Pizza Express website has an offer for everyone to get 40% off food in all restaurants this Sunday- visit the link for details and more offers.
Thank you to the Ballyhackamore team for making us so welcome this afternoon. Meal provided for reviewing purposes.