Address: 301 Manukau Rd, Epsom
Phone: (09) 630 6141
One sign on the door said it opened at 6.30. Another, taped over it, said "Closed". It was 6.40.
I could see movement in the kitchen, so I knocked on the door. Waited. Knocked again. At last a tall figure in checked chef pants with a shock of grey locks emerged from the gloom. He opened the door and stood looking at me as though I were a Mormon missionary or a tax inspector.
I figured that someone ought to break the silence and it didn't look like it was going to be him. So I said, "I'm your 7 o'clock." I was referring to the time of my booking. "I'm a bit early."
"Early!" he said. The tone suggested it was no mere solecism on my part; it was more like a calculated personal affront.
"It does say 6.30," I said hopefully, pointing at the door.
"This isn't the New Zealand Post Office," he replied wearily.
"Well, would you like me to wait out here?," I asked, glancing at the cold pavement, "or can I wait inside?"
He stood aside with a sigh.
"And perhaps a glass of wine while I'm waiting for my companion?"
I addressed this last remark to his retreating back, but I know he heard it because five minutes later he asked what kind of wine I wanted. He even brought me a glassful.
The owner and chef of this little joint is, it transpires, famous for his surliness. I thought that it might be some sort of shtick, as in those Fawlty Towers-themed places that open (and close) from time to time.
But after studying him closely as he went about his work, I conclude that his demeanour is naturally (or perhaps unnaturally) saturnine. There's no sense that he's taking the piss; he just seems pissed off.
It beats me why anyone would name their restaurant with an Italian expression that means "I don't give a damn" (I note, without comment, that "me ne frego" was a motto of the Mussolini-era Fascists). But having watched il padrone in action, I have to say he's as good as his word.
By dint of judicious questioning - I was trying to sound casual rather than inquisitive, for fear of having my head bitten off - I established that his name is Steve, that he has one Italian parent and that he spent the first dozen years of his life here before living in Tuscany for 35 years or so.
Well, if I'd left Tuscany to run a business in the used-car-yard part of Manukau Rd, I guess I'd be looking pretty glum. But if Steve's manner is sour, his food is delightful.
From the menus (handwritten on cardboard, with blackboard specials), we chose some excellent tomato bruschetta and garlic bread; fresh fettuccine with a goat ragu that was dense and rich and heavenly; and swordfish done alla siciliana (oregano, capers). A simple, solid side salad was all we needed to make the meal complete, which was just as well since the tiramisu, which we took away, was unimpressive.
There is a lot of bad Italian food around and Steve's, his mission statement notwithstanding, is not that. But does it all have to be so grim? The bill, just a three-digit number scrawled on a piece of paper, seemed a fitting coda to the evening. I didn't have the courage to ask for it to be itemised.
Vegetarians: Many options
Watch out for: Steve
Bottom line: Joyless service, excellent food.
$113 for two Bruschetta, garlic bread, one pasta dish, one main, two small carafes and one glass of Zonin merlot, one tiramisu.