Address: 53 Nelson St, Auckland City
Phone: (09) 302 2665
Cuisine: Modern Italian
Rating: 8/10

I'll be honest, opera is not my favourite genre of music. On the other hand, I do put Italian cuisine right up there at the top of my list of favourite foods, so on balance I decided to chance it with Toto on a Saturday night, the night when they have live opera in the dining room.

My dinner date turned up in an immaculate black and white striped jacket and flash-Harry shoes. He was dressed for the opera, you might say. Luckily I'd made an effort too. Entering the splendour of the main dining room at Toto, I was pleased we'd gone to the trouble as this is a restaurant that deserves dressing up for; two huge wood fires blazed at either end of the dining room, the pleasant scent of wood smoke hung in the air, glassware glistened in the candlelight and chairs were resplendent with plush ruby-red velvet cushions. The view is all on the inside with Toto and there are few dining rooms in this city that are this casually majestic.

Beginning with a couple of antipasti dishes, we settled in for four courses. Exquisite duck prosciutto was served on bruschetta, beautifully charred and brushed with oil, with flakes of sharp parmesan and dots of dark truffle paste which lent its mysterious foresty characteristic. Toto prides itself on authentic Italian cuisine and a salad of mozzarella with grilled vegetables was reminiscent of the best of simple Italian fare but dare I suggest the kitchen looks towards a local supplier for their mozzarella because here's the thing; the beauty of mozzarella lies in its milky freshness alone. Take that away and you take away its glory so imported mozzarella is always on the back foot. The dish was fine but the star ingredient was easily overshadowed by the vegetables.

Next we tucked into a dish of ravioli that was so fantastic it took us straight to Nonna's kitchen. Tender pasta parcels, plump with a rich beef filling and smothered in an even richer mixed mushroom ragu sauce, were laced, again, with truffle oil. It was the sort of dish that I could have eaten all night, such was the feeling of comfort it provoked. But it wasn't my entree. Mine was the risotto, unflatteringly described on the menu as "mixed seafood risotto" (which conjures up images of fake crab meat and rubbery mussels), but which was crammed full of the freshest salty cockles, soft baby octopus and a decent piece of grilled swordfish. Splendid.


As our mains arrived, so did the opera singers.

A woman in a dramatic metallic blue dress and a young man in full suited glory. They encouraged us to refrain from talking while they sang, but to continue eating if we wished. Phew. And then they opened their lungs and began to sing. Tears sprang to my eyes involuntarily. I was transfixed and remained so each time they took to the floor. I loved it, I didn't want them to stop. My steak sat ignored until there was a break in the singing. I felt a window open, one through which you get a glimpse into the heart of another. Too dramatic? Perhaps. Back to the food.

My steak was cooked perfectly the old-fashioned way and sat on a pool of creamy, yellow polenta that reminded me just how marvellously full of flavour this grain can be when cooked well. Spinach and mushroom deepened the flavour of this dish further and there was the heady dose of truffle again.

Too much of a good thing. My dinner friend systematically polished off a pork belly, rolled around a pistachio stuffing and roasted to its crackling best. One taste and I could see why he was finding room for it - it was tremendous; the crackling had a golden snap to it and yet the meat was moist and falling apart.

We were well satiated and as the opera singers sang their final duet, we polished off a freshly baked chocolate fondant that ran with a hot liquid chocolate centre, along with our other choice, unfortunately a disappointing and disjointed effort - fig panna cotta barely set and not cool enough, mango sorbet, and a small cone filled with chocolate.

From the fresh peach prosecco cocktail at the start to the farewell by the dashing maitre d', dining at Toto is an enchanting experience, with or without the operatics, because it possesses a grandness that few other dining establishments achieve.

From the menu: Mozzarella invernale $19, duck prosciutto $16, beef ravioli $21, risotto seafood $21, filetto with polenta $39, pork $38, chocolate fondant $16, fig panna cotta $16

Drinks: Fully licensed