Who was the Merchant of Venice? If you know a little bit about Shakespeare, you'll immediately say "Shylock". If you know a bit more, you'll say Antonio (Shylock was the Jewish moneylender to whom Antonio guaranteed a interest-free loan made to his mate Bassanio; if you want to know how it turned out, read the play, but I will tell you it's where the expression "a pound of flesh" came from. Just thought you'd like to know.)
My Irish mate Philip, who was accompanying me, answered "What's that? Macbeth?", which is not an ideal answer if you're looking for a job as an English teacher. He's not: but he's a man of awesome competence and integrity who ran (solo) the now-closed Auckland office of a major multinational corporation, and he would be a serious asset to any employer except, perhaps, a school English department. It amazes me that he is out of work. I have his contact details.
I can't remember what led me down to North Wharf, a restaurant precinct beyond the Viaduct where I had had a very dispiriting dining experience. (Attentive readers will remember that the resulting review began "You. Must. Be. Joking" and it was only at the Professor's urging that there wasn't another word between "be" and "joking").
A reviewer on a sister publication had been very unimpressed with Merchants of Venice. So doubtless you're wondering what the hell was I doing there. Short answer: maybe it had improved. Long answer: now, perhaps, you will appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, heading off to restaurants I expect to be bad. And what thanks do I get? When was the last time you sent me something small and expensive - a cheque for example - to assuage my pain?
It's all right. Put the chequebook away. As it happens, re-assessing Merchants of Venice was not such an arduous undertaking. In part, that was because of my mate Philip (did I mention my mate Philip?), who is a terrific conversationalist and was once a chef at the Ritz, so when I asked him if he knew what gnocchi were, he said "Puhleeze" with the withering scorn that only a Dublin accent can adequately convey.
But actually, and perhaps because of the serious bollocking it took shortly after opening, it was rather good.
The same chef is there - he's not Italian, but a local - but he seemed to me a man on top of his game. Philip told me I was happy because I was enchanted by the Brazilian-born, Rome-based waitress. She is, it must be said, very charming: she says I speak very good Italian, which is not true, but admiration is a very fine quality in a woman.
The chef would probably say my Italian sounds like a drunken Spaniard's, but he's not there to be polite and he made us some bloody good food.
We started with some excellent arancini - crumbed lemon risotto balls with a creamy heart of melted mozzarella - which came with a tangy dipping mayonnaise. I only managed to wrest one of the four from Philip before he hoovered them up, but I got the lion's share of some excellent beef carpaccio - tissue-thin slices of beef. It was billed as "the original ... from Harry's Bar in Venice", and I can't confirm or deny that since the prices in Harry's frightened me off ($42 for a bowl of minestrone if I remember correctly). Certainly the dressing tasted like the genuine article - the smooth blend of lemon, Worcester sauce and milk) but the rather agricultural clump of leafy greens on top rather spoiled the effect and the shaved parmesan was more notable for its quantity than quality.
Matters were put to rights with the main courses: the chef in Philip was much impressed with a perfectly circular pool of wet polenta on a board, topped with a sensational, rustically coarse lamb ragu; my Chianti-braised beef cheeks, which had been skilfully compressed into a dense roulade, were the best I've tasted (and made me ashamed of my domestic efforts with that delicious cut) and the accompanying gnocchetti (ask Philip) and roasted baby carrots worked perfectly.
A distressing shortage of Italian wines by glass (they had precisely one glass left of red) was one of the few flaws in a relaxed and enjoyable evening. Ciao, belli!
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
Far better-than-average Italian in a dining district not noted for quality.