When Sergio Maglione was a child, the highlight of the year was his mother's brother coming to visit. Antonio Crisci was what you'd call his cool uncle, always returning from some exotic jaunt to the other side of the world on his sail boat.
"And I love food, so I'd think, what are we going to have?" laughs Maglione, sipping an espresso at his restaurant, Toto, on Nelson St.
Crisci too has fond memories of that time, and of earlier still. It was his grandmother who taught him to cook. What he learned he passed down to his nephew, who eventually followed his lead to New Zealand. Crisci had opened Toto, the old-school Italian restaurant famous for pairing traditional southern Italian cooking with live opera - and for hosting many familiar faces who worked across the road at TVNZ.
He and his partner Vivienne Farnell also opened Parnell's Non Solo Pizza, Bar Vino, Ponsonby's Il Forno bakery and their latest venture, Waiheke's Poderi Crisci vineyard and restaurant.
When Maglione moved to New Zealand it was initially meant to be temporary, to gain chefing experience under his uncle; 15 years on he's a successful restaurateur in his own right.
After working as a junior chef at his uncle's first Parnell cafe, and later chefing at NSP and Toto he now owns Toto outright. On the surface, at least, he's in direct competition with his mentor.
Except, that's not how these two executive chefs see it. They are preparing to stamp out any sense of rivalry when they work side-by-side in their communal kitchen as part of the Taste of Auckland Festival (November 15-18 in Victoria Park).
Maglione will prepare dishes from Toto, and Crisci, dishes from Poderi Crisci and NSP.
"There is no competition between us but I don't classify myself as a competitive person anyway," says Crisci.
That's even though for the past five years the Metro Best Italian restaurant award has gone to either NSP or Toto, with the other named as runner-up. This year, for the first time, Poderi Crisci, nestled in Awaawaroa Bay at the end of Waiheke furthest from the ferry, was also recognised.
"Coming from the same family we do have similar taste and our food is really similar because I'm learning from Antonio," adds Maglione. "Toto is old-school food, and it's relatively Antonio-influenced, so there's not much difference between Poderi Crisci and Toto restaurant."
Their philosophy is to create uncomplicated food that is big on flavour and good, fresh produce.
What you don't see are the time-consuming methods behind it all - or the "vibes" as Crisci calls them, that go into the food.
"Food is love and it's showing up when you cook for somebody that you love. I always describe a classic Neopolitan dish as the sauce of love. It takes four to five hours, and it's easy to ruin, sticking on the bottom of the pot. To avoid that you need to keep looking, and stirring. It's like love - it's something you need to keep looking at, adjusting."
Crisci left Italy when he was 20 with a dream to sail to the Pacific. His travels took him to Tonga, Fiji, and Australia, where he lived for a year. But it was New Zealand where he saw the most potential for an influx of Italian cuisine. Arriving in Auckland in 1991, he was puzzled as to why he couldn't find prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, gelato and coffee worthy of his memories of it in Italy. He falsely deduced it must simply be that Kiwis didn't like the stuff.
"When I arrived, people had no idea what eggplant was, how to cook it. They didn't know artichoke was not a flower, something you could eat if you cooked it. Olive oil was something you got in the chemist and not in the deli and people didn't think it could be produced here. The tomatoes were just watery and completely without taste and flavour."
Seeing himself as a pioneer of sorts, he helped to introduce Italian products, including San Pellegrino sparkling water, set up a delicatessen in Toto (which is no longer) and worked closely with other local importers, such as Delmaine. When Anita McNaught worked for TVNZ, he says, she would pop in to stock up on all the things she desperately missed from Europe.
Now much of Crisci's produce comes from his vege garden at Poderi Crisci, where the "open kitchen" is practically a part of the restaurant.
Although it's been a while since the pair cooked together, particularly now Crisci is busy on the weekends at Poderi, there were once many happy weekends at his holiday home in Langs Beach. Maglione and his friends would often join him and they'd spend the days cooking, experimenting with recipes - and, of course, eating.
Our plentiful seafood is suitably Neopolitan and working here has opened the chefs up to new produce.
"You don't find merino lamb like you get in New Zealand or wild venison that you shoot at by helicopter," says Maglione. "All these things you don't find in Naples."
At Taste, Crisci plans to prepare the one dish he never tires of eating: fish salad with cockles, calamari, mussels, prawns and fish, marinated and poached in his Waiheke olive oil. He'll also create, a mousse-like mozzarella to serve with a selection of his island-grown tomatoes and olive oil, and a confit duck with cannelloni aromatised with orange skin and garlic, complemented by a variety of mushrooms in a porcini cream.
Maglione will present a Russian salad, traditionally eaten at Christmas in Naples, a cold dish of zucchini, potatoes and other vegetables, served with a crayfish sauce, poached prawn stew and lemon asparagus.
He's also making a spinach rotolo (a hand-rolled and stuffed pasta) with buffalo ricotta, smoked mozzarella, pine nuts and a fresh tomato salsa. Finally, he'll present a Roman-style dish: a home-cooked bun with pork, crackling and greens spiced with garlic, chilli and oil, served with mustard and provolone cheese.
"We complement each other because we're sharing a vision," says Crisci. "When Sergio was six or seven, I was 26 so for him I had the world in the palm of my hand. Now he is a man who has the world in his hand."
Experience the Italian flavours of Antonio and Sergio at the Taste of Auckland, Nov 15-18, at Victoria Park.
Viva is delighted to have a $200 voucher to Molten Restaurant in Mt Eden, just one of the many restaurants taking part in Taste of Auckland. To go in the draw visit nzherald.co.nz/vivagiveaways and enter the keyword "Taste of Auckland" on the VIP Viva page along with your details. Entries close at 11.59pm on Sunday, Nov 11, 2012. For terms and conditions see the website. Plus, look out in next week's Viva for our bumper guide to Taste of Auckland.