Let's Eat: Familiar Italian fare draws a crowd

By Peter Calder

Address: 149 Parnell Rd, Parnell
Ph: (09) 309 3878
salepepe.co.nz
Stars:
The ceiling mirror causes the unwary to flinch on their way to the loo. Photo / Getty Images
The ceiling mirror causes the unwary to flinch on their way to the loo. Photo / Getty Images

Does an Italian restaurant need to be run by Italians? As I remarked a few weeks back, I reckon Al Brown's Federal is a better New York Jewish deli than any Jewish deli I tried in New York. (It has the added bonus that the chickens have not had their breasts so fattened by synthetic estrogens that they look like Gina Lollobrigida's).

For all that, I do get a bit nervous when non-Italians take on my favourite cuisine. Blame experiences in places such as the unaccountably popular chain whose name I cannot bear to mention again, where Macedonian chefs turn out food that an Italian hospital cafeteria would be ashamed of.

So when I found out that Sale & Pepe in Parnell was owned and run by Croatians I got a bit nervous. Only a few doors down the street I once had an unspeakable "Italian" meal at a place run by a Croatian: lasagne made with processed cheese; "veal avocado", which is a dish invented by avocado growers, not Italians; mozzarella that came grated and was that ghastly, shrink-wrapped, yellow stuff that you put on pizza.

The proprietor of that place was extremely evasive about her origins. The folk at Sale & Pepe, by contrast, positively celebrate theirs. They hail from Zadar in the north of Croatia, which has a long and often troubled Italian heritage: it was part of the Venetian Republic as far back as the 15th century and from 1920 to 1947 was part of an enclave that was a province of Italy.

The proof of the pudding would be in the eating. (I use a phrase now almost entirely supplanted by the meaningless "the proof is in the pudding" in a probably vain attempt to prolong its life). And so it proved: Sale & Pepe, whose chef is an Italian-trained Indian, was a lot better than the veal avocado place, though that is not saying much. But in a crowded market, it doesn't really stand out.

The room was formerly home to a passable French bistro called St Tropez and, after that, the apostrophe-deficient Andres. The slightly disturbing mirror running the length of the ceiling remains, which causes the unwary to flinch while walking to the loos. Little else has been done by way of a refit, although a large photograph of Florence dominates one wall; it kept the Professor and me occupied, picking out landmarks while we waited.

And waited. Our starters consisted of an insalata caprese (buffalo mozzarella and tomato), which requires about six knife strokes (no cooking at all) to prepare, and a dish involving scallops and thinly sliced chorizo, flash fried (cooking time 30 to 60 seconds). I'm damned if I know what they did with the other 10 minutes, but ours was the only food order that had been placed. Perhaps they were emailed to the kitchen.

The mozzarella that finally arrived was of indifferent quality (it's pretty easy to source good creamy bufala these days and this wasn't it) and the scallops were more than marginally overcooked.

Mains were equally underwhelming. I ordered tagliata, a beef dish that is supposed to comprise thin slices of rare steak (the word itself means "sliced"). Instead I got a quite generous portion of a thin cut of steak. It was nicely cooked and topped with the obligatory rocket and parmesan, but the grace notes - a few roasted capers and a squirt of chilli sauce (?) - seemed unimaginative: what price some rosemary or lemon zest?

The handmade pasta in the Professor's chicken and pancetta pappardelle was excellent, but the pool of oil in the bottom of the bowl would have provided rations for an entire team of polar explorers. The sad presentation of a side of vegetables (carrots and broccoli) put me in mind of rest-home food. I enjoyed the roasted potatoes, but the fact that they come with every main does not strike me as inimitably Italian.

I may have overdone it here and I don't mean to be unkind. Sale & Pepe (which would do well to live up to its name by providing salt and pepper on the table) isn't a bad restaurant. It's just very ordinary. That said, it was pretty busy by the time we left. So was the place across the road whose name I cannot bear to mention.

Verdict: Unremarkable but popular mid-range Italian.

- Herald on Sunday

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