Eating out: Just like home

By Ewan McDonald

Michael Dearth's new restaurant will treat Aucklanders to a taste of the food he grew up with

Michael Dearth with head chef Ben Bayly. Photo / Babiche Martens
Michael Dearth with head chef Ben Bayly. Photo / Babiche Martens

Diners feast on gourmet dishes such as confit alpine salmon, ballotine of Coromandel crayfish and wild red deer roasted in Earl Gray ash at The Grove, Michael Dearth's award-winning restaurant in inner-city Auckland. One thing that has never appeared on the menu - nor is likely to - is meatballs.

But the humble, homely comfort food will be front and centre of the bill of fare at Dearth's new venture on the Auckland waterfront. The cafe-bar-restaurant is even named for the rissole - under its more glamorous-sounding Italian label, 'baduzzi'.

There will be much more than meatballs to Baduzzi, scheduled to open in late August as the cornerstone of the city's next restaurant row at the new ASB Centre at Wynyard Quarter. The restaurateur sees the dish as a metaphor for the staple diet of his family background, a cuisine he's been itching to celebrate since American-Italian childhood.

"Italians have a tradition of food and wine. When people had to leave home they would take their family and search for a better place in the world.

When they got to a new home they would adapt and expand their culture - you can see and feel that wherever Italians went and settled, be it Melbourne or San Francisco."

Or in Dearth's case, Connecticut. "We were a typical East Coast Italian-American family. In the yard we had pear and peach trees, grapevines, tomato plants. My earliest memories are of my mother making preserves in Mason jars - it was the way she had been brought up - or my grandmother bottling sauces. After school I would be out in the yard, up the mulberry tree, eating the fruit."

Dearth reversed his family's journey. He moved from America to the old country, to an Italian immersion course in the medieval city of Urbino, in the Marche region, and spent eight months working on a farm outside Florence. He admits he was swayed by Tuscany's Renaissance jewel.

"I would work on the farm with 30 Arabian horses, then go down to the town and watch these old guys sitting outside the cafes, talking and drinking bicchieri of red wine. That was when I began to see what the lifestyle, the rhythm of the seasons, was about. I had the same life as my forebears. If zucchini was in season we would eat zucchini. We would eat all of the zucchini, flowers and all. And then we would do the same with whatever crop came next."

Which brings him back to the meatball. "It's a metaphor - it shows that something that is simple can be good. Home cooking is the most loved and most misunderstood form of cooking. People think using more ingredients or a more complicated recipe makes food taste better. Italians very rarely use more than three key ingredients - but they are all fresh, says the man whose fine-dining restaurant has won just about every award minted in this country, and who discovered art chefs Michael Meredith, Sid Sahrawat and Ben Bayly.

Throughout nine years at The Grove, however, something kept nagging at him: the desire to cook and serve the food he had grown up with, the kitchen cooking of Luigi and Lucia Spadutti, Mamma D and Tony Mittola - his parents and grandparents, whose photos will feature on the wrappers of Baduzzi's meatball sandwiches.

Everything came to a simmer at a time that evokes another memory of Italy: "The council and the church decided to restore the cathedral and the square. For a couple of years the area outside the restaurant was a construction site. We did zero covers for lunch. I was walking around there one lunchtime and it struck me, 'This is the time to do that meatball restaurant'."

Bayly, of The Grove, will be designing Baduzzi's menu (with the proprietor and the ghosts of two Italian grandmothers looking over his shoulder). Dearth is emphatic it won't be the food of tourist Italy. "I would describe it as being seated at the cellar table of regional Italy - your forearms resting on timeworn oak, eating food that has sustained nobility and peasants since the time of the Roman Empire. We hope people will look forward to every visit like Italians look forward to a return to the old country."

Or perhaps to their childhood, like that of a little boy who spent his afternoons up a mulberry tree, and whose children now play in a kitchen garden at a home in Pt Chevalier where Dad cooks meatballs or pizza or pasta dishes for anyone who's around. Another generation of Italians continuing the search for a new life, a new taste, in a new country. Luigi and Lucia, Mamma D and Tony would be pleased.


Baduzzi - ASB Centre, cnr Jellicoe St and Fish Ln, North Wharf, Wynyard Quarter. Opening September.

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