I'll admit it. The day I'd set aside to visit Waiheke Island I was pushed for time. Ambitiously, I'd planned to take the 11am ferry crossing, meet up with friends to have lunch, then rush back on the 2pm sailing back to Auckland for another meeting. However, things didn't quite work out that way. Once we arrived at Antonio Crisci's latest venture, vineyard restaurant Poderi Crisci, time seemed to slow down in the most exquisite way.
Nestled in the quiet valley of Awaawaroa Bay, at the far end of Waiheke Island, Antonio and his team have created a magical little slice of Italy. Crisci is already well-known for having established the hugely successful Toto restaurant in Auckland City, Il Forno Cafe in Ponsonby and Italian bistro NSP in Parnell.
In 2009 he was voted Outstanding Hospitality Personality of the Year at the prestigious Lewisham Awards, so it's hardly surprising that his latest venture continues to reflect this passion for bringing the cuisine of his birthplace, Italy, to our shores.
And so we settled ourselves at one of the patio tables, ordered glasses of chilled rose produced from the grapes on the surrounding hills, let out a collective sigh and proceeded to enjoy lunch in the style that Italians are famous for - by slowly savouring multiple courses of lovingly prepared food, starting with salumeria (delicatessen) and side dishes to share, moving on to antipasto, then pasta and secondi and finishing with dolci and cheese ... with no thought for time or anything other than the food, wine and great company.
From the salumeria we sampled the selection of cured meats, olives, breads and pesto. All were divine. The pesto was created from a mix of mushrooms with a hint of truffle and it was so sublime it set us off for a full 10 minutes just talking about its flavours. From the contorni (sides) we enjoyed polpette alla napolitana - small meatballs in a fresh tomato sauce made tasty with the addition of sultanas and pine nuts.
For antipasto we went with the recommendation of our waitress and selected the prosciutto di oca - house cured duck prosciutto. Strips of cured duck lay on toasted crostini, topped with a soft cloud of finely grated parmesan, and all of this on a bed of punchy rocket, saved from being bitter by a drizzle of sweet, earthy truffle oil. This dish demonstrated all that is great about authentic Italian cuisine - simply prepared ingredients with outstanding flavour.
Having been informed that "the tuna had just come in" that morning and that the fresh ravioli of the day was beetroot and goat's cheese, we leapt at these for our secondi, or main courses. Freshly made pasta is always a treat and this ravioli was heavenly. Little parcels of unbelievably tender pasta, the bright pink beetroot and goat cheese filling tangy to the tongue, drizzled in sage butter, and served on salty, buttery, wilted spinach. I couldn't remember tasting better here or in Italy.
For the tuna, two thick rounds were cooked pink and served alongside steamed cockles on a bed of soured, braised peppers, olives, capers and cherry tomatoes. Marvellous.
Around us, families, couples and groups were all soaking up the ambience and settling into their own long lunches or gently strolling around the gardens. Crisci himself came out of the kitchen to wander among the tables and talk about the food and wine (or horoscopes in our case!). It was all very casual and familiar and I was struck by how authentically Italian the whole atmosphere felt.
There isn't enough room here to describe fully the environs of Poderi Crisci - the rows of soft green, puff ball olive trees, the clipped lavender hedging, the winery and other plaster buildings covered in creeping vines, the gardens of herbs and vegetables that supply the kitchen - but it strikes me that the attention to detail bodes well for this establishment to be serving exquisite lunches and producing wine for generations to come.
We made it all the way to dolci, finishing with a silky pannacotta and an excellent tiramisu that picked us up enough to think about getting the next ferry home. Even so, it was well after 4pm and as we were leaving we could hear Crisci calling after us: "Forget the boat, there will be another sailing, stay for some cheese." Oh how tempting.
From the menu: Affetato (selection of sliced cured meats) $18.50pp, duck prosciutto on crostini $19.50, polpette (meatballs), breads $4.50, fish of the day (tuna) $31.50, ravioli $18.50, pannacotta $12.50, tiramisu $12.50.
Drinks: Fully licensed.