Phone: (09) 363 7030
Rating out of 10: Food: 8, Service: 8, Value: 8, Ambience: 7
One of the difficulties with the shared plates style dominating the Auckland eating landscape is the considerable variation in what constitutes a sharing portion. We have eaten in some stylish establishments where portions are so small they would be hard put to make the grade as canapes and where you have to keep adding top-up orders to make a decent meal. In others, if you order the recommended number of dishes you risk contributing to the horror of New Zealand's obesity statistics.
At Gusto, the latest addition to the growing armoury of eateries centred around Sky City's Federal St, the advice from our amiable but professional waitress was helpful. We thought we'd balanced it well but she advised we were probably overdoing it by one large dish and she was bang-on.
Even our first selection, the tuna crudo - which is often cut so thin it resembles microscope slides - was substantial. It came with sliced green apple and radish, which were useful, but the oil rather overpowered the freshness of the dish.
But the knock-out blow to our intention of trying more dishes came with the kingfish tail saltimbocca. This dish substituted fish for the more usual veal to be wrapped in prosciutto and flavoured with sage and capers. It was simply enormous. I suppose we should have expected this from its $42 price tag but we have learned that in Auckland these days cost is not much of a guide to quantity.
Had it not been good it would have been a meal killer, something of an ordeal to wade through for two. Fortunately the fish was perfect, just the right side of underdone, and rich with the woody fragrance of sage.
This flavour was an authentic touch from an establishment that describes itself as a rustic Italian restaurant. There's an element of artistic licence about this unless your bit of rural Italy looks like a typical grand metropolitan hotel. You reach Gusto past the vast marble hotel reception and a stark hotel bar and once inside there are huge marble communal eating counters as well as the more usual tables.
The food does, however, have an authentic simplicity and freshness of taste, starting with the simple bread and oil. Demonstrating self-confident professionalism, the pasta-maker was on view practising his art, as was the charcuterie specialist, casually demonstrating the gap in knife skills between the expert and the home cook.
Although our ambitions were thwarted to sample more of the menu, such as the polenta with salt cod, and to compare their meatballs with other versions of the current favourite dish, we felt we had to try a pasta. This was the pappardelle with a superbly flavoured rich wild boar sauce but where the pasta was star, a reminder that good pasta is far more than just blotting paper for its accompaniment.
By the time we'd eaten these courses, augmented with a nicely balanced salad which set the bitter chicory flavour of radicchio against the aniseed hint of fennel and the tang of orange, we could have called a halt. But the dessert menu deserved a sample and we were glad we did. The panna cotta, presumably based on the dairy product of the Waikato Lewis Road creamery, was subtle and enlivened by pine nuts and fresh raspberries. The semifreddo with strawberries in syrup was similarly pleasing.
The wine list is also less rustic Italian and more Grand Hotel in its extent but we did follow the pleasant conceit of sticking to Italian and found they appropriately rounded off an evening that we, like the packed house, had enjoyed.
Even the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the Sky City parking system failed to dampen our pleasure.
Our meal: $180 for four dishes, two desserts and four glasses of wine.
Our wine: A substantial list with a good variety of Italian wines. We started with a lively Foss Marai prosecco and enjoyed a La Viarte pinot grigio from Friuli and a very well-priced young Farnese Fantini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
Verdict: Executive chef Sean Connolly has produced another winner, which the mixed crowd on our visit all seemed to enjoy.