Restaurant review: Ballaro - an offer you can’t refuse

Could north London’s Ballaro be the capital’s best Sicilian?

See-cilly, as the natives call it, has a special claim on my affections. It was there that, last year, I first had intimations about my day job, which, believe it or not, goes beyond visiting nice places to eat. It was this sepia island that gave us the mobster culture which, translated into film in the 1980s and 1990s, made for my favourite cinema. And after the cricket and Mario Kart, the pastime that most occupied me as a child was chess, in which I set out to master something called the Sicilian Defence.

This move comes when white opens with his king pawn (or e-pawn) and black responds with his c-pawn, countering a king-side offence with a queen-side defence. Gary Kasparov favoured this method when defeating Nigel Short for the world title in London in 1993. That event was what got me going.

Since that visit last spring, I’ve fallen for Sicilian food, an intensification of the mainland’s cuisine that bears the heavy imprint of Arab occupations and which, until recently, has not been very easy to come across on these shores. All of which made the opening of Ballaro very exciting. It is perched beside a hotel in Belsize Park, an area economically, morally and geographically in between Camden and Hampstead. The décor is curiously un-Italian, with bright white light, lime-green sofas, and a maze of doors into the toilets that makes it hard to know where you are meant to relieve yourself. But the service is sublime, and the food not far off it.

Each of the waiters is dressed in pressed white shirt, black waistcoat, and black beret. They tend to have carefully decorated facial hair, such as our chap with the shaved, pencil-thin band of hair marking his jawline. He is from Florence, having grown up in Naples, and has an accent so thick we half imagine he’ll break out of it in a second, shout “Only kidding!” and reveal himself to be called Joey, from Essex. But it turns out he is the real deal, so we follow his recommendations, ordering each one.

There are six antipasti options, including a tomato salad with grapefruit, fennel, red onion and “Sciacca anchioves [sic]” (£8.50), referring to a town in the south-west of the island. This is fresh and near faultless: the grapefruit appears to be tinned. A trio of salmon, tuna and baccala (salt cod) comes with perfectly cooked quail eggs and pomegranate (£13.50), the snap and juice of the fruit making a lovely foil for the fish. The deep-fried squid with chilli-and-lime mayonnaise (£11.50) puts crisp and smooth textures together without too much grease, but a weird little accompaniment of chickpea pancakes has got me thinking. These are small, about 12cm squared, and tasty like chewy, hummus-flavoured flatbreads. Fine, but what have they got to do with squid and mayonnaise? They are the antipasti version of an asylum seeker, warmly welcomed in but never fully at ease.

There are six dishes under “La Pasta”. A celeriac soup with truffle oil and rosemary crostini (£8.50) is too thick, but full of strong flavours working in harmony; and something called a ricotta gnudi – in between pasta and gnocchi – is made good by saffron-infused pecorino and pistachio nuts (£11.50).

Four fish and five meat dishes then take the menu up a level. A sea bream marinated in paprika and orange, with lentils and Savoy cabbage (£15.50), is moist, aromatic and delicious; and a rack of lamb with pumpkin, braised radicchio and mint yoghurt sauce (£19) has my mate Zahra – who studied Arabic, is marrying an Italian, and cooks like a dream – purring with joy. Of an excellent set of sides, each £4, the signature caponata is the best.

At this point the head chef, Carmelo Carnivale, comes over. He used to be head chef at Novikov. “Sometimes I burn myself on the oven,” he says, “just to convince the wife I’ve been working.”

He is a talented man, whose rotundity encourages us to order desserts aplenty. These scale new heights altogether, from a pear with ricotta mousse and sesame-seed nougat, to a tiramisu, a chocolate cake with fig sauce and an affogato (all £6). They, in keeping with the man who has cooked them, are generous, intelligent, delicious and very Italian. This could, already, be the best Sicilian in the capital. 1

Ballaro, 154 Haverstock Hill, London NW3 (020 7586 1107). £140 for two, with wine

Rating 8/10

Four more things I’ve been eating this week

Tropical fruit salad

Two for £5 from M&S, just like the “Mango Madness” selection. Am using them as preparation for my honeymoon to the Caribbean.

Ham & Cheese toastie

At Sager & Wilde in Hackney, east London. Thick ham, melted cheese and succulent gherkin in a divine bite.

Mango dhal

My mother really is the best cook I’ve come across. This gloopy, rich, fruity dhal with lemon rice was a Christmas highlight.

Christmas pudding

We had a few left over, of which the Waitrose one with chocolate, branded by Heston Blumenthal, was, I’m afraid, the best by miles.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own