Let's Eat: Modest mastery

By Peter Calder

Piccoli Piatti
170 Jervois Rd
Herne Bay
Ph: (09) 376 5367

www.piccolipiatti.co.nz

Staff at Piccoli Piatti deliver efficient and unobtrusively watchful service. Photo / Getty Images
Staff at Piccoli Piatti deliver efficient and unobtrusively watchful service. Photo / Getty Images

I never went to Herne Bay Local, although the owner emailed me once to say that his staff had said I'd been in and to express the hope that everything had been satisfactory. Implicit, I suspect, was the hope that to the extent that something had been unsatisfactory, I would keep quiet about it.

Anyway, I always meant to go, because I had heard and read such good things about the food, but the name put me off. It suggested a bar in which the food would be secondary.

Then, a few weeks ago it re-emerged under its new name. It means "small plates" in Italian, though the concept of a small plate does seem rather at odds with the way Italians think about food.

In English, the "small plates" name emerged when the tapas craze had got beyond a joke and started to feature quarter chickens and bowls of Thai soup. I have remarked before that it has always seemed like a more cost-efficient way to separate diners from their money than the entree-main-dessert meal and plenty of people tell me that they are quite over small plates.

But the quality of the piccoli piatti at Piccoli Piatti allays any concerns about quantity and, in any case, there are chicken/fish/steak mains, and five pasta dishes come in main sizes, so larger appetites are catered for.

The long, narrow room has a bar along one side and tables (most of which are of the stool-high variety) along the other. Despite the fact that one wall is bare concrete, the noise is remarkably muted, since the staff do not follow the hideous practice of choosing music they like and playing it really loudly. Instead, they do their job, delivering efficient and unobtrusively watchful service.

The Professor and I were seated with a good view of the kitchen, so we enjoyed watching the chefs moving effortlessly and at great speed around each other in the small space. I'm always impressed by this since I have trouble keeping out of my own way when I'm cooking.

The food that came out of that kitchen - with remarkable speed considering how many tables were occupied - was for the most part very good and often exceptional. A big chunk of salmon, hot-smoked in-house, was paired with pickled cucumber whose astringency perfectly offset the oily sweetness of the fish. The same contrast was evident in some white anchovies, deep-fried in a batter as light as tempura: fennel, which might profitably have been more finely sliced, courgette and lemon made for a nice balance of tastes.

I had come across stracciatella before as a soup - it's a Roman speciality involving dripping egg into the hot broth so it forms strings (the word means little shred). But to the people of Puglia in the southeast it means a kind of cheese, which is what they serve at Piccoli Piatti.

Lovers of mozzarella di bufala have got to get a load of this: the stretched curd is thin and stringy and it comes swimming in its own cream with excellent oil and tiny crostini. The Professor, who is fond of her mozzarella, was swooning so much I feared she would fall from her stool.

The online consensus seems to be that there are more than 350 varieties of pasta (more than the 246 varieties of cheese that, de Gaulle said, made France ungovernable) and the chefs here opened my eyes to a new one that night: hand-rolled pici, like fat spaghetti, made a superb base for a rich ragu of slow-braised goat shoulder, which came as meaty slabs rather than mince.

The presence of chunks of bacon was a slightly vulgar touch - lardons are better rendered early in the process - but the ragu was damn tasty.

The same could not be said for a risotto that wanted for salt and was let down by tiny cubes of raw courgette. That vegetable is a sort of culinary blank slate, waiting for the chef to inscribe taste on it; it does not work as a flavour in itself.

If I say that the Professor would let me have only a small taste of the hazelnut mousse, it is all the praise it needs, since she is a stern judge of desserts. It capped off a fine meal at an unpretentious and moderately priced eatery, which you should visit soon.

Verdict: Smart service, tasty tucker.

- Herald on Sunday

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