The best stuffed pasta in Auckland? Reviewer Kim Knight satisfies a carb craving at this Ponsonby Rd Italian.
When they ask us how we survived the pandemic we will say face masks, contact tracing and carbs.
Pasta and pizza, rice and noodles. We slathered salt on our despair and rubbed cheese into the sore spots. Post lockdown 2.0 I vaguely considered a month of salads but then I went to Farina where the gnocchi comes with pork belly and who was I to argue with an early Government-sanctioned mandate for two bus seats per person?
Farina offers in-home options but the Covid-hit hospitality sector is desperate for you to stay and order drinks. Pull up a chair and pull out your Eftpos card, assuming you feel safe. Restaurants are struggling to abide by the single server recommendation and, here, I needed a staffer's phone torch to light the QR code. I declined the first table I was offered (as did the woman who arrived after me) because it felt too close to the next. Strange times for diners and dining establishments. Remember when all we worried about at 1pm was what we were having for lunch?
Anyway, there we were, our first night out in three weeks, perched on the low, backless stools of the big tables out the back of Farina. It was a Tardis, with an entirely separate pizza kitchen and room for a feasting crowd that we couldn't see from the front entrance.
I spent ages with the menu, trying to decide which fiddly dish I wanted the most - all the deep-frying and gnocchi-rolling and pasta-stuffing that I couldn't be bothered doing at home; all the octopus and the duck that had not featured in my mundane contactless grocery deliveries.
We started with frittatine ($12), which were five small bricks of mushroom and macaroni bound in bechamel, crumbed, and bubbled in hot oil. Crunchy and truffle-salty, they contained unadvertised peas. Controversial. The depth of social media discourse on the addition of peas to just about anything (but especially anything macaroni) is one of the great middle-class mysteries of our time.
Truthfully, the peas were overcooked and the entire dish was overshadowed by the most incredible octopus I've eaten without using a passport. So tender, slightly spicy and heaped into cups of radicchio, aka the sophisticate's cabbage that is so seasonally hot right now. The polpo needed a party; this is the hand-around snack I want to eat under fairy lights when we're allowed to breathe on each other again.
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We shared two mains and two vegetable sides and (notwithstanding current social distancing requirements) probably should have found two other people to eat with us - the portions are enormous. Given the current price of capsicum I was stunned to receive a bowl of what looked like at least four large peppers, roasted and cut into strips before being tangled with sultanas, pine nuts and salty chunks of anchovy. Every mouthful melted like some sort of savoury, oily icecream and it was only $12. I almost offered to pay more. In total textural contrast, zucca alla griglia - pumpkin shaved prosciutto-thin, borderline raw, which was surprising in a good way and further enhanced with chilli and mint ($10).
A quick word here about the service: exceptional. When James dropped his fork, there was a replacement before he'd even looked up. Side plates and serving utensils arrived as a matter of course and the drink service was speedy. With its high industrial ceilings, low-slung lights and Lambretta scooter advertising on the tabletops, the space has a timeless and democratic factory smoko room feel. The seats are not super-comfortable but the vibe really is.
Stuffed pasta is the test, right? So often an exercise in disappointment, when you receive half the amount you expected, tough dough and over-processed filling. Farina is not that place. It delivered a mountain of the most perfectly cooked, beautifully butterfly-shaped tortelloni, stuffed with shreds of duck and swimming in mushrooms, cream, butter, sage and a heady waft of truffle. A cold rural maimai at dawn is a million miles from a lively Italian restaurant on Ponsonby Rd but this dish forged a kind of bridge. The fungi reeked of earth, the pasta was human labour at its finest and the duck was unfussy and integral - restaurant food with its roots in the real ($32).
The gnocchi ($28) came with a two-meat ragu, in which the tender pork was better than the tough brisket and a pillow of ricotta mellowed the tang of a tomato base. The gnocchi were soft and yielding and, really, the only thing wrong with this dish was that it was not the duck.
"My mouth looks small but it's not," said James as he valiantly tried (and failed) to clean up our overabundant order. Comfort food comes in all shapes and flavours but if hearty Italian is your culinary duvet, then Farina's is kingsize.
Farina, 244 Ponsonby Rd, Ph (09) 390 6213. We spent: $185 (two starters, two mains, two sides and four drinks).