Address: 3-5 Mt Eden Rd
Phone: (09) 309 3740
Since appearing last week on our television screens as a guest on a certain competition cooking show, Chef Gaetano Spinosa's face may now be more familiar to us. There he was, giving advice on making pasta and asking contestants how much love had gone into their food. TV may be a new medium for Spinosa, but sharing his love of food is not.
He and his wife own O'Sarracino Ristorante at the top of Mt Eden Rd and one side of the menu is dedicated to telling the story of how this Italian boy came to be living on the other side of the world from Napoli, where he was born.
It's a love story involving the Pope, pickpockets, a restaurant in Milan called Liu and a Kiwi girl called Leanne. All you need to know is that the ending is a happy one for us diners who enjoy authentic Italian food on our doorstep.
I have to say it wasn't love at first sight for me or my dining companion when we first arrived at O'Sarracino. Admittedly it was early and, as the night wore on and more diners arrived to fill the space, the ambience improved but in my opinion more work is needed to complete the transformation from its former glory to "ristorante".
Nevertheless, as so often happens, once the food began to arrive all was forgotten and forgiven.
I'd heard that the antipasti selection at O'Sarracino was spectacular, so we ordered the mixed platter to get a bit of everything. It didn't disappoint. Homemade casatiello sent our tastebuds souring. Yeasty and stuffed full of pancetta and cheese, this rolled homemade bread was divine. Thin zucchini slices were deep fried to a caramelised splendour (who knew a courgette could taste so intense?), while plump fresh figs and chunks of melon were a marvellous combination with the prosciutto.
The salami caused us some alarm at first. Bright pink in colour, we wondered if there'd been some tampering (read "food colouring") involved but the flavour was perky and delicious, so we made further inquiries. Spinosa was on hand to explain that this style of salami is common in northern parts of Italy where they use younger meat, resulting in a more moist and soft texture as well as a brighter colour. This led to further discussion and, before we knew it, samples of salami from the different regions began appearing for us to taste.
This is the delightful thing about dining at O'Sarracino - discussion about the food with the staff is welcomed and met with enthusiastic and lively debate about regional preferences and the different methods for preparing dishes.
Ordering mains was easy - we let Spinosa do it. We liked his straightforward approach: "What you feel like? Pasta or no pasta?" "No pasta," we chimed.
"Meat or fish?"
"One of each," we responded, to which he assured us, "I know what you like, leave it to me" - and away he went.
When a chef is so passionate about his food, trust him implicitly, I say.
Turns out he did know what we'd like. Thin slices of fillet steak for me - juicy and full of flavour - combined with the sharp gritty Grana Padano cheese and peppery rocket. It was a simple dish of few ingredients, with the flavours brought harmoniously together by a lick of that favourite of Italian ingredients, extra virgin olive oil. Sensational.
Our other main dish was a plateful of thick snapper fillets, fresh as can be and cooked to perfection, resting on tasty medley of cherry tomatoes, olives and capers with sauteed prawns and a grilled scampi, split down the middle for easy access, giving it the bravo factor. Both dishes were typical Italian fare - simple and prepared in a way where the focus is on bringing out the flavour of the ingredients.
By not having pasta we had room for desserts - a tiramisu and cassata icecream. I'm a huge fan of tiramisu and this one put any I make to shame - sweet and creamy, yet light and with enough of an espresso hit to do the trick. The serving of house-made cassata, packed with candied and dried fruit and nuts, was delicious, though slightly icy.
The best way to dine at O'Sarracino is to get involved. Talk about the food, ask questions, engage the staff. We did and as a result we left O'Sarracino feeling the love - for food, family, friends and for living life with gusto.
From the menu: Antipasto della casa $14 pp, Fish of the day (snapper with prawns and scampi) $36, Tagliata Grana e Rucola (fillet steak) $34, Tiramisu $12, Cassata icecream $12.