Key Points:

From the greeting at the door to the farewell, the service is superb. Staff cover the room seamlessly, and are pleasant, informative and intelligent. They are also quick - and they need to be because on a busy night there are a lot of tables, despite the elegant, spacious feel.

We start with misto ($8.50), breads and oil with garlic and rosemary, always a good choice as you settle in and get a measure of the evening.

Sir moves on to Prosciutto d'oca, duck prosciutto served on toasted ciabatta with shaved parmesan, truffles and truffle oil ($19.50). Lovely presentation - like a row of cameos and, he says, lovely taste. He has a glass of Fattoria di Basciano Chianti Rufina 2003 ($9) - the by-the-glass choices are not extensive and sticks with it for his main.

My starter of Carpaccio Con Pecorino Ubriaco ($22.50) is the star of the evening: herb-smoked marbled beef carpaccio with red-wine-infused pecorino and fig vinaigrette and mustard cress. The fig seeds give a novel crunch in what is otherwise a meltingly tender dish.

The chef, describing the pecorino cheese later, says: "The skin goes red and the cheese has the smell of a wine barrel when it has been emptied." Never having managed to empty a wine barrel, I take his word for it.

Italians are big on enjoying their food and wine: everyone talks at once, restaurants are noisy ... but they are also big on another thing - not having a brutta figura: not making a fool of oneself, not making a bad impression.

It is opera night, Toto is packed and a long table behind us is taken by an office party that has come through from the bar. Some of the men seem to be competing to out-bray each other and the effect is that voice levels at surrounding tables have to be raised. In the end, everyone has to shout to be heard and it becomes unpleasant. It is over only when the non-fat lady sings. Blessed relief.

Meanwhile, back at the food, Sir wants the Hereford fillet. There has been criticism that he all too often opts for the steak. What can I say? He's a man who likes meat. The fillet comes on a pumpkin mash with spinach and topped with a quail egg. It is a jaw-droppingly large portion of meat and, on top of the vegetables, makes a minor castle of a course.

Mine is no less impressive. Four or five - I lost count - slices of sage-crumbed veal interleaved with fresh imported cacciotto cheese on peas with a veal jus. It tastes delicious but is too much for me.

After a suitable rest and Habanera from Carmen, we launch into Semifreddo al Torrone ($13.50) a glorious mix of semifreddo, nougat and figs for me and Affogato alla Toto ($12.50) for Sir. That is all the coffee hit he needs but I have an espresso and a grappa.

*Post-prandial niggle: at the start of the meal we were discussing the New York trend to say no to foreign mineral waters with all their associated food miles, in preference to the Big Apple tipple, which is apparently lovely. We find nothing wrong with Auckland water and went the same way, which is why it was odd to find a $10 bottle of San Pellegrino on the bill when I pulled it out in the office several days later. I know I should have checked earlier, but that is one big black mark against Toto.


Toto
Address: 53 Nelson St, City
Phone: (09) 302 2665
Web: www.totorestaurant.co.nz
Wine: Glasses $7 to $18, bottles $35 to $950.
Our meal: $226.50 (including $20 opera charge) for breads, two starters, two mains, two desserts, four glasses of wine, one grappa, one coffee and a bottle of water.
Verdict: Great food, impeccable service, good atmosphere. Don't expect a quiet tete-a-tete.

Out of 10
Food: 8.5
Service: 9* (see 'post-prandial niggle', above)
Value: 8
Ambience: 8