Alessandro’s been a good friend of ours for many years now – and if you’re from Belfast, you might know him as the founder and friendly-face associated with DinaDina, an award-winning, authentic, Italian eatery (specialising in Piadina) which was located on Upper Arthur Street until he recently decided to close the doors for the last time just over a month ago, to move on to his next chapter.
We recently caught up with Alex over some pizza and beers; having had a little time to reflect on his experiences, it seemed like a good time to reminisce. We chatted about his experiences running his own business as an Italian in Belfast, the highlights of his time at DinaDina, his thoughts on pizza as someone who grew up surrounded by the good stuff, and of course as someone who made some mighty fine pizza himself.
Most foodies in Belfast will be familiar with DinaDina but for everyone else, can you tell us a little bit about DinaDina and your back story?
My name is Alessandro, I was born in Milan a good while ago and I moved to Belfast in 2011 for unknown reasons. I’m the founder of DinaDina, an authentic Italian street food establishment that traded in Belfast City centre from 2015 to 2018. We brought a completely new concept of Italian food here and we were the only ones in the country making Piadina, a traditional flat bread originally from the North-East coast of Italy.
In 2016-17 we won a few awards, including Best Street Food in Ireland and also Best World Cuisine in Ulster. The world spins fast and things change, so I recently decided to move back to Milan, selling the restaurant and leaving Belfast without an absolutely unique place; I’m not cocky, just stating a fact.
Were you always interested in food? What inspired you to open your own place?
I always like to tell the story about me, 7 years old, telling my mom I wanted to be a chef. I remember watching my mom making food on Sundays, while I was setting up the dining table, trying to make it look like it was a restaurant, even branding the napkins by pen with the name of the business, which wasn’t DinaDina back then….
I never really pursued that career, because when I was a teenager, instead of trying to study the hospitality business, I decided I wanted to be a writer/journalist and then a rockstar. Once I was finished with writing and touring around the world with my band I went back to the primordial instinct of making food. Not shitting you, I actually did all of that stuff!
How did you find running a business in Belfast? What did you enjoy/not enjoy?
I never had a business before this and I must say that it didn’t feel, from a bureaucratic point of view, too complicated to start something in the UK; I was amazed at how easy it was to create my Limited Company online in just a few minutes. Sure, when I opened DinaDina the first day I had almost two years of crazy work to put everything together to be ready to start, but that’s the part I tend to forget because they were exciting but very stressful times.
Running it was probably, together with being a rockstar, the most exciting job I’ve ever had. I love working with the public and I love feeding people my creations, because I have a genuine passion for food and everything that goes with it, from satisfaction to true happiness. I’ll be Italian cheesy – the highlights were all the smiles on people’s faces when they were eating my stuff. I’m gonna pretend I forgot about how stressful it was to do everything on my own.
I’ll never forget that woman who didn’t believe we were Italian because she had never seen such food around here, but mainly because she was 100% sure that Italians don’t have tattoos…
How did you learn to make pizza?
I think I’m quite shit at making it even if many people might disagree, but it’s funny because I learned most secrets of making pizza from one of my pizza chefs who’s from North Belfast!
Do you have an all-time favourite pizza place?
Any pizza place that makes authentic, Neapolitan pizza in Italy is a potential favourite to me. I love the fact each pizza chef can put his own touch to the pizza and make it unique. I could maybe tell which is my all-time non-favourite place, but I won’t… I’ll just say it is all over the world ’cause it’s a big chain, with a fairly short name, and some red in its logo… and that ain’t pizza, motherfuckers!
What are your favourite toppings? What toppings do you hate?
I keep it simple and normally just go with Italian Sausage, with no fennel, and a smoked cheese called Scamorza. I love buffalo mozzarella too. Hate? All the things that should never be on pizza: mainly chicken, pineapple or any random sauce. Pepperoni? I like it, but despite sounding like an Italian word, there’s nothing Italian about it.
What do you think of pizza in Belfast? How does it compare to authentic Italian pizza?
No comment, but to answer the question about comparing I could quote a song by a very well known Irish female singer with very short hair.
What’s next for you? Will you re-open DinaDina? Are you planning to move into something different?
The plan is to open in Milan and I’ve been working on it for a long time already, but I want to make sure everything is exactly how I want it before I confirm anything. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll probably sell some kind of goods, hopefully not coming from the back of the truck, or lorry, as you say here.
Where can people keep up to date with your future plans?
Just follow me on Instagram: my profile @thekitchenmofo is full of food shit and sometimes shit food, too. I will probably give updates about DinaDina there too.