Phone: (09) 630 9130
Rating out of 10: Food: 9, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 7
There was no tortellini the night we went to Pasta & Cuore.
It required mortadello sausage and that sausage, said the waiter, was stuck on a boat. "It is somewhere between there and here."
There being Italy. Here being Mt Eden - now, arguably, the best suburb in Auckland to eat pasta.
I can thank Italian food for my current relationship. Early on, we "took a break". We agreed to meet up to Talk About Things (even though we were Not Talking). We had pasta, somewhere in Pt Chev. The ravioli was raw, the sauce gluggier than wallpaper paste and, because of the terrific awfulness of it all, we were compelled to discuss. That restaurant has mercifully closed. We still go out and talk about food.
At Pasta & Cuore, it's hard to shut up about the food and everything else. They take bookings. There are cubes of focaccia bread to eat while you decide what to eat. The service is totally charming but not obsequious. The wine list is Italian, so you get more charm while you ask to have it explained. Oh, and the food.
We started with the mozzarella di bufala and it was perfect. Two balls of milky, softly-stranded cheese, on top of chopped cucumber, capsicum, tomato and red onion, with a basil leaf garnish. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing like any mozzarella I've ever bought from the supermarket.
Fresh and simple are the hallmarks of Italian food, so it would be a cliche to applaud these attributes in a dish - but I will, because when you actually encounter them, you realise how many places get this wrong. (We watched a zucchini carpaccio go past, its paper-thin slices of cream and green flecked with balsamic. If it had been a cow, it would have still been kicking).
It had taken us ages to order. The menu is as homemade as the pasta, which you can also buy to cook at home, and it runs to several pages. There are treatises on fresh versus dried pasta, the difference between potato and semolina gnocchi and the story of the recipe books Pasta & Cuore's joint owner, Stefania Ugolini, received from her grandmother one Christmas Day. That's a lot of reading, we told the waiter. He shrugged and smiled: "We talk a lot."
Our mains arrived under a handful of greens. At the last minute, I'd ordered two tigelle - described on the menu as a small, round, flat bread; crisp on the outside, soft and steamy on the inside. Because you always need bread to mop up the sauce, right?
I hadn't anticipated just how perfectly the blue cheese and walnuts would coat the spaghetti gorgonzola. There was no spare sauce, no excess cream drowning the square-cut "chitarra" pasta. It was cooked so al dente that, for the first time, I felt like I really understood what that phrase meant.
Am I raving? Across the table, James was declaring his gnocchi al ragu di pollo "transcendent". Coarsely minced chicken and slippery chunks of porcini mushroom were combined with tiny cubes of carrot to create an intensely savoury dish (I went upstairs to check out the bigger tables, and that smell of chickeny-comfort had permeated the whole place).
We chose a chocolate mousse (less sweet than we expected) and a tiramisu (more airy than we're used to) to take away and that was probably a mistake because some of the attraction of this place is definitely the people who make and bring the food.
Ugolini, the joint owner, met her Kiwi partner in Bologna. She has run restaurants in Italy and, most recently, worked in Miami. The Mt Eden vision is to showcase the food and cooking from her home region, Emilia-Romagna (that's ragu, thanks, not bolognese), and some of the staff are people she worked with there. As that handmade menu notes, "authenticity and quality are the two pillars in international cuisine". Pasta & Cuore consistently exceeds the brief.
The bill: $136 for a starter, two mains, a side salad, three wines and two take-out desserts.
The verdict: Really great Italian food, supplemented by really great service, in a small space that (hurray) takes bookings.