On Thursday evening, The Handbook headed over to Belsize Park to try out Ballaro, a new Sicilian restaurant that opened earlier this week. Co-owned by renowned Italian chef Carmelo Carnevale, former Head Chef at Novikov, we were very excited to sample his new offerings – needless to say our expectations were very high.
We arrived at 7.30pm when the restaurant was in full swing, and, having seen photos of the empty restaurant, we were expecting a contemporary, stylish atmosphere. Designed by Sally Yeoh with a brief of slick London restaurant meets warm, friendly Mediterranean bistro, I was a little underwhelmed: yes, the walls were freshly painted white, and windows filled one side of the restaurant, but the tables were flimsy, plastic-topped and lacked table cloths, and the chairs were a faux-leather lime green. Putting the décor aside, we were squashed along one wall between two other couples, making it very difficult to have any sort of private conversation. The menus we were presented with were just individual sheets of paper which already had greasy stains on them – definitely not what we were expecting. However, these are all small faults that could easily be tweaked; good food was the most important factor for us.
For starters, we chose ‘baked aubergine rolls with tomatoes and scamorza cheese from Ragusa’ and ‘burrata with baby plum tomatoes and basil’. In fairness, both of these dishes were adequate and were as the menu described, but that didn’t stop me from being just a little bit disappointed. Carnevale is a chef renowned for his rich Italian flavours, and we couldn’t help but feel that the starters were a little bland – the aubergine dish really was just a rather tasteless cheese rolled in baked aubergine, and the burrata dish, which should be creamier than mozzarella, simply tasted like raw mozzarella and tomato on a plate.
Moving onto the main course, we chose ‘ricotta gnudi with saffron pecorino cheese from Enna and Bronte pistachios’ and ‘roasted calf belly with chestnuts, fennels seeds and Marsala’ with two side dishes: deep fried zucchini and roast potatoes. Again, we found both of the dishes rather tasteless: the gnudi just had a little butter on for flavouring, and the calf belly had no extra flavour to it – none of that delicious Italian flavour that we were hoping for.
For dessert, we decided to try the ‘classic tiramisu’ with Marsala’ and the ‘chocolate cake served with Zibibbo wine sauce and figs’. This was definitely the most successful course in terms of flavour, but did not make up for the lack of it throughout the meal. We did enjoy the crisp white wine that we chose, but another thing that really let the restaurant down was the service: it was very slow and sloppy, there was noone to advise us which dish or wine to choose, and the waiters didn’t remember which of us had ordered each dish – all in all, it just was not the sort of dining experience one would expect in London when parting with a minimum of around £50 per head.
Needless to say, we will not be returning.