Barbarino's Spaghetteria, Avondale: 16 - Great
Public Service Announcement: The torta caprese recipe is on page 208.
I know this is a restaurant review but I urge you to pre-order the book of Fran Mazza's culinary career. It contains the doughnut waffles from Salvation Kitchen, the croque madame from Hello Friends+Allies and - crucially - the extraordinary chocolate and walnut tart that was the highlight of our night at Barbarino's Spaghetteria.
Mazza and her husband Aaron Carson operate a slew of popular Auckland eateries. The latest, in an unassuming spot on Great North Rd, puts pasta front and centre. It's pitched at families, flatmates and other unpretentious eaters. The basic premise is nothing a competent cook couldn't manage - think pasta shapes in sauce with a schnitzel on the side if you're really hungry - but sometimes you want someone else to do the work. It's not an entirely free ride. Someone will bring a carafe of water to your table but you must queue at the counter to order.
Presumably, this is what allows the restaurant to charge just $10 for a bowl of butter and parmesan-adorned pasta. Go all out and the most expensive pasta dishes on the menu (the smoked salmon and the marinara) are a mightily restrained $22. Personally, it's impossible to ignore the siren call of words like blue cheese, cream and walnuts. One of us was always going to get the gorgonzola ($18).
James opted for a pappardelle base. The sauce was creamy and thick and the pasta perfectly soaked. On a date-night drip-risk scale of one (guaranteed to deposit scalding cheese on your cleavage) to 10 (safe to eat on any occasion including that tricky make-or-break third date) it scored a nine. I took a point off for the walnuts, chopped very finely and mostly scattered on top, rather than safely bound into the dish.
If the pasta was perfect (not too chalky and not too slippery) the sauce was a little lacklustre. Our palates demanded more cheese and we would have happily paid extra for more umami oomph.
Boscaiola ($20) was a "seasonal mushrooms selection, white wine, sausage and parsley". The selection was, it turned out, singular - button mushrooms sliced super-thin - and lighter than you might have expected on the other components too. That said, Kiwis have a tendency to treat sauce as the main point of pasta and I'm not sure Italians agree with this approach. I liked that the sausage meat came in raggedy chunks and that some mouthfuls were pure rigatoni-based carb.
Across the table, our favourite sauce of the night - Siciliana ($16). Eggplant, ricotta and olives in a napoletana-tomato base slicked the pappardelle. Flavourwise, it was a sort of deconstructed lasagne; tangy, creamy, salty and really delicious.
We need to talk about the vegetables. Almost as cheap (and definitely better for you) than chips, it was a bowl of winter arrived early. Garlic-roasted cauli, kale and carrots ($9) would have been good if the latter had not been as crisp as a salad. Get the actual salad, in my opinion. There are five options, and the rocket with balsamic ($10) was big enough to comfortably split three ways.
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Barbarino's is named for the character played by John Travolta in 70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. It's a noisy, casually fun place with sequinned signage on one wall and art by Frances Hansen on the others. The lights are festooned for a party, the music is cranked accordingly. Buy wine by the colour. not brand and definitely get the $5 doorstop of garlic bread because it is crazily good value. I also urge you to line up (again) and order dessert.
I'm still thinking about that chocolate torte. Rich, dense and not too sweet, studded with walnuts and every mouthful better than the last (why is the opposite so often true of cake?). We also had an excellent affogato with noticeably good quality icecream, and a tiramisu that was far better than I've had in far more expensive surroundings.
In her upcoming book Feed Me, Feed Me, Mazza writes she wants people to leave Barbarino's feeling "full, happy and relaxed". Mission accomplished.
Sip the list: I'm predicting this will be the shortest sip the list review ever because Barbarino's has only four wines and you're not even told who makes them. But — and this is a great thing — you are told what they taste like. There's a frizzante — "light, crisp with a touch of sweetness", a white blend — "fruity with a sweet finish", a rosé — "strawberries and cream" and a red sangiovese — "fruity and full-bodied". And they're available by the glass, the bottle, or carafes in 250ml, 500ml and 1 litre sizes. Beerwise there's Peroni, (pint-sized, mini-sized and zero alcohol). Plus there's a bunch of Pellegrino soft drinks, limoncello and the obligatory Aperol Spritz, coffee and coke. Yee-haa — you read that in just 37 seconds. — Yvonne Lorkin
1790A Great North Rd, Avondale
Ph: (09) 820 0458
WE SPENT: $128 FOR THREE
WE THOUGHT: 16 - Great