Our last meal in Remuera had been disappointing, which happens all too often on the leafy slopes, but this time we had high hopes. Spacca, a newly arrived Pizza e Cucina restaurant, which opened five weeks ago in the Upland Rd shops, comes with an interesting lineage. The guys who run it have been behind some of the better Italian restaurants in Auckland's outer eastern suburbs. Head chef Gaetano made a name for himself at the excellent O'Sarracino in Mt Eden. He and owner Gino both come from Naples, as does Gino's father, Tony. And all of them have the same background in
delectable Neapolitan cuisine.
But we weren't quite expecting this. The restaurant space is small, with doors that open on to the street (so suitable for wheelchairs), a serving station in front and seating for about 20 along the two remaining walls (plus one table outside). The fitout is crisp and clean: white tiles on the walls, black banquettes opposite gleaming metal stools around the tables, plus a charmingly hand-scripted line-up of interesting-sounding pizzas on the blackboard, available to eat there or take away.
When we booked we were advised of two sittings: 6pm and 8pm, "though you don't have to get here until 6.30", said the maitre d' in his alluring accent. By 7pm the place was beginning to fill up nicely. On one side we had a table of four young workmates on a night out, on the other a group of men and some couples. As our waiter said, it was a slow night compared with Monday, but because Spacca's small it's definitely worth making a booking. However, on this quiet Tuesday we got plenty of attention, especially when they realised our cute guest was a foodie who spoke Italian.
First we had to explain that one of our party was allergic to gluten, and another to dairy foods, neither of which fazed the Spacca team. Although they like 24 hours' notice to prepare gluten-free pizza and pasta, they still managed to put together a meal that was not only delicious for all four of us, but neatly side-stepped both dairy and gluten.
It's a short menu and our waiter recommended we begin with the house antipasto at $14 a head, so within a few minutes we were settled with glasses of Italian wine all round and four plates of starters to share. The favourite was a super-tasty caponata or eggplant medley, followed by fat slices of Neapolitan bread, rolled up and baked with cheese, salami and pancetta. Then there was a heaped dish of plain but exquisitely tender calamari rings and prawns.
This was the second time recently we'd dined out and encountered at least four helpings of each dish to try - in this case more. Hopefully, this means that at last restaurants have worked out they need to match the number of portions to the number of guests when we order sharing plates.
Our main courses were equally delicious. The gluten-free chicken was the most tender thigh meat ever, cooked off the bone, with mushrooms in an aromatic, strongly flavoured sauce. Although it was large I ate every mouthful. The fish soup, or zuppetta, was also a knockout. A tasty, home-made broth, it was loaded with crab, prawns, baby octopus and clams and came with a delicious ciabatta. Then there was the beef ragu, a rich and tasty meat sauce on pasta, and the pesce (or fish), which turned out to be trevally. Accented with prawns, tangy red cabbage and a delicious sauce, it was excellent.
Dessert time. We were advised by our waiter to try the special sweet caprese cake, cooked that day, rather than the usual tiramisu. "It's even better," he said. Served in cool, squat glass dishes, it again brought our table to silence as everyone dug in to the chocolatey, creamy concoction. Southern Italian food at its very best.
So hats off to the guys at Spacca, one of the city's most unpretentious and authentic Italian restaurants.
Our Meal: $292 for four antipasti, main courses and desserts, plus six glasses of wine and a beer.
Wine List: There's something for everyone on this mainly Italian list, plus beer and soft drinks.
Verdict: Authentic South Italian cuisine comes to Upland Rd. At between $28 and $36 for our main courses the meals aren't cheap, but the cooking has that marvellous taste of Naples, the service is exceptional and the terrific-sounding pizzas at about $24-$28 (slightly more if you dine in), which seems to be standard for restaurant pizzas, are pretty good value too.