Don't you just love it when you've heard about a restaurant for years but never visited it, then when you do, it far exceeds your wildest hopes? This was the case when I dined at Parnell's Non Solo Pizza recently.
To be honest, I wasn't in much of a mood for a dinner out but my date for the night convinced me it was better to see our plan through than to cancel. We did have to eat, after all.
Walking through the patio garden, with a fountain spilling charm and lush vines clinging to the concrete walls, confirmed we'd made the right decision. We were in for a treat and I felt my spirits soar.
NSP is huge but it manages to avoid feeling too vast or soulless with its clever layout of designated eating and drinking areas - the romantic garden courtyard, a snug bar with an open fire, the sophisticated dining room with dizzyingly pretty lighting. An enormous wood-fired pizza oven adds to the atmosphere. NSP is owned by successful restaurateur Antonio Crisci and his partner Vivienne (of Poderi Crisci on Waiheke and formerly, Toto) so I shouldn't have been so surprised at its gloriousness.
It's easy to see where the name hails from as the menu at Non Solo Pizza certainly does offer more than just pizza. Set out in true Italian style it starts with pane (bread) and roba fritta (fried stuff) and moves into antipasto, then plates from the delicatessen then pizza, pasta and secondi (mains) and finishes with dolci and cheese. We made the decision to avoid the pizzas altogether but let me tell you this; as each freshly baked wheel was ferried past our table, our nostrils flared with the heavenly aroma of the wood-fired dough and we promised ourselves that next time, we'd order nothing but pizza.
We began with the house-cured duck breast on toasted ciabatta, topped with a sliver of truffle, freshly grated parmesan and a drizzle of truffle oil. It is a standout in flavour and texture - sharp, unctuous, soft, sweet, gritty, salty ... it has it all in just the right proportions. We moved on to the artichoke hearts - baked and oozing with smoked mozzarella, and tarted up with lemon and parsley - and the involtino of leek. Both were delectable.
Our mains arrived and by this time the dining room had filled with a mix of family groups, beautiful young couples, business boys, a few RWC tourists (we could tell because, bless them, they were wearing merchandise) and all of us were being well looked after by a multi-national team of sexy young wait staff .
Risotto alla zucca. Sounds so much more exotic than "pumpkin risotto" don't you think? The plateful of creamy short-grain rice that was put before me, crammed full of cubes of soft pumpkin and, somewhat less plentifully, sweet pieces of prawn meat and it delighted me no end. Chilli, chervil and crayfish oil added to the rich layers of flavour and as an entree size, it was amply satisfying.
My dinner date had selected the fish of the day - two thick rounds of seared tuna sitting on a medley of potatoes, olives, cherry tomatoes, caper berries and a herbaceous salsa verde. The combination of ingredients was a great match for tuna but the fish itself was cooked beyond "seared" and was too flaky to be truly fabulous.
The portions are substantial at NSP so despite having promised at the beginning of our evening to make it all the way to formaggio - because who can resist a list that includes parmigiano reggiano, gorgonzola and taleggio - by the time we got to that end of the meal, I could barely even consider a dessert. From the tempting selection of tiramisu, ricotta tart, vanilla and mascarpone semi-freddo and more, we feebly selected the sorbet selection which was refreshing with flavours of orange, lemon and raspberry.
As we left Non Solo Pizza, I remembered that a friend, on hearing I was having dinner there, had told me that she would always hold a special place in her heart for NSP. At the tender age of 20, she'd been taken there for dinner. Not used to eating in such places, she was nervous that it would be obvious that she was an "eating out novice".
That was more than a decade ago and yet her enduring memory of that night is how subtly and carefully the wait staff looked after her, ensuring she felt at ease.
Since then she has returned time and again because, in her words "it is a place where anyone and everyone is made to feel welcome".
I couldn't agree more and, coupled with the outstanding traditional Italian food they're serving, this Parnell institution now holds a special place in my heart, too.
From the menu: Prosciutto d'oca $22.50, Involtini di por (leek involtini) $9, Carciofi ripieni (stuffed artichokes) $9, Risotto alla zucca $20, Seared tuna $34.50, Caprese salad $19.50, Sorbet $13.
Drinks: Fully licensed.