Address: 226 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland
Phone: (09) 376 3095
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 8

As new restaurants open along Ponsonby Rd with amazing frequency, we decided it was time to see how our old favourites were managing against the competition. So, last Friday night, after Max's soccer game, we headed for Prego where, I'm pleased to report, they're doing just fine.

As usual, we had to wait 20 minutes for a table. As always, the big, airy dining room and gas-heated outdoor area were full way into the night.

Prego seems to have lifted its game a little. Sitting at the bar we couldn't miss the barman's impressive knowledge. Unerringly he produced a soft, aromatic Metz Anne pinot gris for me, a passionfruit-scented Two Rivers sauvignon blanc for Andrea and a spectacular glass of ginger beer for Max. Then, after a few jokes and cheerful banter, our table was ready.

The menu at Prego is short but varied. Steadfastly it sticks to what it does best: pizza, pasta and an interesting, expertly cooked array of meat and fish dishes. Unlike most other restaurants, it doesn't bow and scrape to fashion either. There wasn't a pork belly to be seen.


We started with the kids' special pizza meal for Max, who was already engrossed in a game of noughts and crosses on the playsheet provided. He chose the ham pizza and icecream with chocolate sauce to follow, all of which cost a princely $12.50.

Our meals, on the other hand, with main course prices at $30-$38 each, were a shock after months of tapas dining. But what a delight it was to have my very own dinner again.

I started with Prego's famous calamari, which reinstated my faith in the dish, which is too often cooked to a tasteless crisp.

At Prego, they just shake the thick-cut rings in a thin coating before a quick plunge in the deep fryer. The result is slightly crunchy protection outside and soft, succulent calamari within. Deeply delicious. Unfortunately, there was a problem: someone had forgotten to take the filmy, skin or sinew layer off the rings and it was near-impossible to bite through. It got caught in our teeth and, in Max's case, "nearly choked me!"

Meanwhile, Andrea's arancini balls, made with rice and gorgonzola, and oozing richness, accented by a figgy-tasting mayonnaise, made a fabulous beginning while the men attacked their meatballs. Three large balls each with plenty of garlic tomato sauce, followed by the Prego pie for Marcus and saltimbocca for Brian.

Saltimbocca is usually made with veal, but this was cooked with chicken, prosciutto and mozzarella and was more creamy, but Brian was well pleased.

The Prego pie was also chicken and seemed light on solids, but Marcus was happy and it was massive, with a beautiful, crisp, chef-made pastry shell atop a snowy mound of creamed potato.

My beef cheek was stunning. I've tried to cook this myself and failed, but this was superb. The meat was as soft as rice pudding and the taste, accented with garlic, was divine. The swirl of creamy potato underneath helped too, as did our sides of spinach and roast potatoes. A true winner.

Andrea's chargrilled agnello (lamb) was also stunning. Perfectly charred on the outside and red within, it was butter-tender, seasoned all the way through and served with a wake-up call of pancetta and goat cheese terrine. Again, the serving was generous.

Indeed, I had to encourage our companions to try the dessert menu. Again it was classic: tiramisu for the men, creme brulee for Andrea, a scoop of cassis gelato for me and an icecream sundae for Max, who lovingly licked every last drop, then declared: "Cool." We agreed.

It was a reassuring evening. It's good to know that the tried and true compete effortlessly with Ponsonby's flashy newcomers.

However, while Prego is even better and just as popular, at those prices I'd suggest it's time they upgraded the cheap cutlery and paper napkins.