On the former site of the Haverstock Arms, a slightly dingy although very honest kind of pub, the site was unoccupied for quite a while and I keenly watched as it was being refurbed and spruced up for its new opening. What appeared was Ballaro, with a gleaming white exterior and large fancy lights to entice in the Belsize Park locals. The chef, Carmelo Carnivale, is ex head chef at Novikov. Not that I’ve been there so I didn’t take much from that, it sounds impressive though for a new neighbourhood restaurant. Even better they had a 50% offer for their soft launch so I snapped up a table for lunch.
We were greeted promptly with a warm Italian welcome and shown to the table, they’re definitely aiming for a more formal service although not too stuffy, I almost expected to be air kissed as I walked in. No doubting this is an Italian restaurant, buongiornons abound. As soon as we sat down we were brought a small glass of prosecco each and a selection of breads and antipasti. The wine was delicious, dry and crisp with a touch of apple sweetness. The cheese and tomato bread was moist and moreish, and I enjoyed the salty olive tapendade. Olives / peppers and the parmesan were good as expected. The foccacia squares and rolls were dry but we’d had plenty to start for a lunch.
Onto the food proper. The menu is split into a traditional format with starters, pasta primi and main secondi. Given this was lunch, we chose to split a starter, split a pasta and have a main each. Burrata and tomatoes was up first, at a rather shocking £11.50 so I was expecting something mind-blowing. This after all is a lot more expensive the superlative Trullo who have an excellent burrata starter. It certainly did exactly what it says on the tin, with a plate of halved cherry tomatoes, burrata, oil and basil. And nothing else, disappointing. Still, if perfect it could be forgiven from a culinary perspective (if not financially). The burrata had a soft texture and was creamy with good seasoning. It was however served unusually in strands rather than a ball with a soft interior. The tomatoes were not good, being under ripe and tart. Quite frankly like a £1 special of hard supermarket tomatoes. A major annoyance in a £5 starter, definitely unacceptable at this price. Casareccie Norma was brought at the same time as the burrata, although we had asked for them to be brought separately, I’ll give them a break since they’re settling in to a new restaurant. Again at £11.50, pasta and tomato sauce better be good. Nice al-dente rolled pasta, a reasonable tomato sauce with some depth, basil. Topped with a healthy pile of grated ricotta. Good comfort food but not much more, I would have expected to see more aubergine (I can’t actually recall any) and more depth in the sauce, it was overly sweet as well. Very neat pasta, I’m not convinced it was home made which would be very disappointing at that price but I forgot to ask so can’t assert either way.
The mains list was very traditional in general but the mention of cous-cous (Sicilian) caught my eye, served with seafood. It came well presented with a pile of seafood atop a small mound of cous-cous and a light seafood broth to add moisture and flavour. The whole split langoustine was a highlight, plenty of sweet meat. The octopus and scallop were soft and sweet and a couple of juicy mussels. Tomato halves were a bit misplaced in this dish but strangely good, why didn’t they use these in the starter? Overall a reasonable mix of ingredients brought together by the broth but again needing more depth and punch. The wife had tuna steak with ratatouille. Requested medium-rare and served slightly over, it worked adequately with traditional flavourings but no excitement.
Pretty stuffed for lunch by this point, we couldn’t resist a shared bowl of ice-cream, asking for a scoop of lemon sorbet and a scoop of pistachio. We actually received 3 scoops of each (2 portions), oh well. We mentioned the mistake and were told we’d only be charged for 1 (but were charged for 2, at least it was half price). Anyway, it was a very good sorbet, almost sherbety with a crisp lemony flavour and snow-like texture. The pistachio was also excellent, super creamy and smooth with more deep flavour. Hence I didn’t correct the bill.
So, bearing in mind this was their opening week there are some promising signs. But, the dishes overall lacked depth and flavour, something essential to Italian cuisine, especially with such a simple traditional menu. That paired with the price is hard to swallow. Even with the 50% off food it was at the limit of what I would pay for the food. Lunch with a couple of glasses of wine is pushing £50 a head, all out for dinner you’d be looking at £75+ a head with wine. I realise this is Belsize Park, but they need to develop their flavours more and perhaps add more adventurous dishes and combinations to avoid looking somewhat dated. Everything was neat and well presented but that’s not enough to make up for lack of flavour at this price.