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Phone: (09) 302 2665

We once fell into a conversation with a well-travelled New Yorker, who said his favourite restaurants were Italian.

"But," he added, "I like the ones in America better than any I have been to in Italy."

This seemed perverse but on second thought not entirely illogical.

Cooking traditions have always been adjusted to suit local tastes and ingredients and the marriages are often very successful. Think, for instance, of Japanese food without tempura, which was borrowed from the Portuguese.

Nevertheless, when you trot into an Italian eating place anywhere, you do have certain expectations.

On a recent trip to an English county town we had an Italian meal that was memorable in its awfulness. In the hope of blotting out the memory we set off for Toto where, we recalled, the food was not only sound but bore some resemblance to the food of Italy.

What a relief. There were the things we expected: insalata caprese and antipasti, gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce, papardelle with broad beans and gremolata, spaghetti vongole, beef ravioli, lamb with parma ham and ricotta and on to tiramisu and gelati.

This is not to suggest that there weren't interesting twists on tradition, although rather fewer, if memory serves, than under Toto's last regime. There is spiced confit of duck leg, seared duck breast, and capsicum caponata with Mediterranean couscous, and there's octopus carpaccio, with asparagus, fennel, citrus salad and macadamia.

We all know that what sounds good on a menu doesn't always deliver. Here, by and large, it did. We started simply with the zuppa di pesce alla Toto, a good soup with a delicately flavoured broth and a decent mix of seafood. I also went for the simple approach, with excellent grilled prawns graced with a tomato salsa and a parmesan crisp, although the eggplant fritter was somewhat leaden and added little.

The fish of the day, as described, sounded promising and proved a wise choice; crispy skin snapper with a macadamia topping, cannelini beans, cherry tomatoes and more of those sweet clams.

My main course of herb-crumbed veal was tasty enough without it being remarkable and the eggplant involtini were a bit solid and made our side order of rosemary potatoes a little redundant. These were full of flavour but could have done with a little more cooking time, for my taste at least.

The strawberry souffle was anything but solid, a light little thing well accompanied by chocolate sauce and a fresh-flavoured mint gelato. My minted dark chocolate mousse came with an Earl Grey icecream, a flavour which provided an appropriate piquant note.

The other characteristic that you hope for in an Italian restaurant is a cheerful, lively atmosphere and we found our spirits lifted on a chilly evening by the feeling that everyone, from couples to big groups, was having a good time while there is enough space to avoid neighbours' bonhomie being too boisterous.

The service was attentive, helpful and notably knowledgeable on their extensive wine list. Toto had given us what we hoped for, a warm welcome and food that was familiar and comfortable.

Rating out of 10
Food: 8
Service: 8
Value: 7
Ambience: 8

Our meal: $226.00 for two courses, two mains and two desserts, and five glasses of wine.

Our wine: We stuck to Italy from a terrific and well displayed list. The 2006 Umani Ronchi Verdicchio went down so well it received a repeat order and the 2007 La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo was a pleasure as was the Moscato di Pantelleria 2008.

Verdict: Sound, dependable food well served in pleasing surroundings amid a spirited atmosphere.