Address: 244 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Verdict: Classic simple Italian fare, done with distinction.
Restaurant reviewers should strive to eat unnoticed but sometimes you have to accept your cover is blown. When the Professor and I walked into Farina to be confronted by a beaming Pascal Murello, I knew it was going to be one of those times.
Murello, who (with Manuel Garcia) started, ran and sold Mondial in Surrey Cres and the Beresford Wine Bar, is adding a bit of Gallic je ne sais quoi to the Ponsonby Rd strip's newest, very Italian, eatery. "I was out of a job," he explained, with an expressive shrug, "and I was walking past ..."
I'm pleased for him, of course, but he knows what I do for a living and, as we took our seats, I could see the news rippling through the kitchen like a line of falling dominoes.
Any hope of an unobtrusive meal, with perhaps a few surreptitious notes made under a napkin, was gone.
Matters were made somewhat worse by our choice of table. Diners can choose from stools at the bar or tables down the back, but the high banquettes we ended up at are more like perches than seats; the view is excellent but it's hard not to feel like a museum exhibit or an oriental potentate enthroned.
After a few minutes, I decided to turn the breach of anonymity to my advantage. I engaged co-owner Sergio Maglione in conversation and together, we inspected the glass cabinet full of what the Italians call contorni - delicious confections that can function as appetisers, side dishes or snacks - and he agreed to make up a platter of a bit of this and that.
I doubt he did anything for me that he wouldn't do for you if you asked (and he gave me a proper bill), but the strategy allowed us to graze much more widely than we might otherwise have done.
Maglione and partner Mike Ross hail from Toto, which is being refurbished for a relaunch as a casual bistro. Farina is designed to showcase the explosively tasty dishes of Neapolitan domestic and street cuisine. The watchword is simplicity and the prices are to match: the only items priced above $20 are all at least half a metre long - the Toto-style pizzas; the spiedini (skewers of grilled meats); and the porchetta sandwiches, which looked sensational.
Passing over the salumeria (meats and cheeses sliced to order), grills and pizza, we set to work on a selection of contorni: baby peppers stuffed with goat cheese; tender octopus in olive oil with garlic and chilli; tiny pork and fennel sausages with white beans; stuffed squid whose bulging profile made them look like mushrooms. Sardines, served warmed in the preserving jar they'd been stored in, were fantastic, slathered over crisp and chewy charred bruschetta; raw kingfish made a mild but tasty ceviche.
A state-of-the-art machine turns out pasta, including even the tubular rigatoni, fresh each day. Of the ones we tried, a dark tagliatelle was most impressive, tossed with paper-thin discs of octopus and lent muscular body by bottarga, a salty mullet roe that is colloquially known as Neapolitan caviar. But the big tortelloni, stuffed with a creamy minced ragu of duck and sitting in a pool of mushroom sauce was pretty damn good, too.
We just had enough room for a shared slice of torta pasqualina della nonna (Grandma's Easter cake), an orange and ricotta number that was a rustic take on cheesecake, just the thing to finish off a meal of classical simplicity.
Ponsonby Rd is not short of Italian-flavoured eateries but Farina is the genuine article.
They don't take bookings - they don't even have a phone - which is consistent with their attitude: if you want to eat there, you just need to turn up. They'll do the rest.