Auckland Restaurant Review: Lil Ragu In Takapuna Is An Al Fresco Pasta Spot Serving Authentic Italian

By Jesse Mulligan
The mezzaluna pasta, gnocco fritto and tiramisu at Food Truck restaurant Lil Ragu in Takapuna. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Pasta

Address: 150 Hurstmere Road, Takapuna

Phone: 021 244 0148

Reservations: Available for groups of six or more

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Gnocco fritto $24; pappardelle $27; mezzaluna $29; gnocchi $25; rocket salad $14; tiramisu $15

Rating: 16/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give

The one downside of choosing to eat at Lil Ragu is you will have to pronounce the word “Lil” in front of your friends and family. Are you certain you know how to do it? I worked in commercial radio for years and remember attempting “Lil Kim” as infrequently as possible, on one occasion carefully back-announcing a song as “Lady Marmalade by Christina Aguilera and … friends”.

But that is my only hesitation about sending you to eat at this North Shore gem, a brilliant example of somebody executing a simple idea in a beautiful way. It is a food truck, now permanently situated next to an office building, with chairs and tables in between the two creating the sort of al fresco experience more associated with Burleigh Heads than Takapuna. Why don’t we have more of this sort of thing? Well, I suppose because even in the first week of March the breeze was a touch chillier than you might have preferred it to be. Also, as an aspiring restaurateur, it’s not the sort of thing you can just … do.

“How did you end up here?” I asked Tarik Tnaja, the lovely bearded Italian man who runs the kitchen (and the floor, when things are busy).

“Well,” he began, “I spoke to the landlord and applied to the council …”

But I had already stopped listening. I shouldn’t have asked. The magic of being a diner and not an owner is that by the time you show up, all the torturous admin has been taken care of. Your only admin is to choose a glass of wine.

Food Truck restaurant Lil Ragu in Takapuna has an al fresco dining area. Photo / Babiche Martens
Food Truck restaurant Lil Ragu in Takapuna has an al fresco dining area. Photo / Babiche Martens

I ate with Lance, whose family is from the Italian island of Stromboli (“a volcano erupted and half of Stromboli moved to Wellington”) and who has very high standards for home country food (his favourites are Farina, Baduzzi for groups and Pasta e Cuore — though neither of us has visited since it changed hands). A North Shore local, he was already sitting with a glass of cold pinot grigio by the time I’d navigated the Wellington Street on-ramp and made it across the bridge. I ordered one too and it was so good — on its own and with the rich food — that I abandoned my usual policy of trying different wines by the glass and stuck with it for the night.

I was pretty peckish by now and ordered some antipasti while browsing the pasta menu. The gnocco fritto is a great hunger-buster and though it translates simply as “fried dough” there is more going on — pork fat and milk is included in the batter which results in a much-enriched mouthful, golden on the outside and a light, salty chew within. It comes with burrata — just enough to leave you wanting more, which is rare — and fine slices of prosciutto, more salt and fat and, as you can probably imagine, a perfect pairing with that medium-bodied white wine.

The gnocco fritto with sage. Photo / Babiche Martens
The gnocco fritto with sage. Photo / Babiche Martens

The dish was decorated with olive fragments and fried sage and, speaking as someone whose sage plant is the only thing really taking off in his garden, it was good to see liberal use of this herb throughout the menu. If you were quibbling you might ask for a more seasonal offering but sage is pretty good all year round and by the time it’s been crisped in butter it doesn’t matter if you’re using the fresh growth of spring or the older leaves of autumn.

The pastas tend toward winter as well — big comforting meaty sauces, and even a vegetarian option is based around gorgonzola. We ordered three between two of us (we finished them but one each would have been more than enough) along with a raw salad, featuring some summer rocket but also fennel, which again is more associated with the colder months.

The best main of all was the gnocchi, a dish that was simple and beautiful with light, clean-to-bite dumplings in that blue cheese sauce, with “roasted walnuts”, though these were blitzed to crumbs, so their distinctive flavour was harder to detect. But I loved the other two as well: mezzaluna, which is a sort of ravioli (the name means “half moon”) filled with brisket that had been braised and pulled apart to an almost molecular degree — this one came with a basil and pistachio sauce; and pappardelle, a comparatively simple dish with pork and fennel sausage broken up and scattered through a truffle cream sauce.

Does he hand-make the pasta?

“I used to,” he said, then pointed to the pappardelle, “but … something like this, we sell tonnes of it, so we buy it in.”

The tiramisu. Photo / Babiche Martens
The tiramisu. Photo / Babiche Martens

It’s a good problem to have. And he still makes the gnocchi and some other pastas which, between prepping the other ingredients, chilling excellent individual tiramisu portions in tulip-shaped wine glasses and keeping up with whatever council regulations he’s currently getting his head around, must make for a very busy life.

The obvious question is whether he’ll move into a brick-and-mortar restaurant one day — this being the usual progression for a successful food truck owner. I hope he doesn’t. He’s invented a new genre here, and the casual outdoor setup is a big part of the charm.

From dining out editor Jesse Mulligan.

New Epsom restaurant doubles as ‘somewhere James Bond might drink if he was priced out of Herne Bay’. It’s the right kind of neighbourhood spot — suburban but sophisticated, classy but casual.

Parnell has a beautiful new Samoan restaurant. You won’t find anything else like it. ‘I’ll be very interested to see how this one goes.’

A Ponsonby newcomer takes its chances on ‘a lightly cursed courtyard’. The Chinese eatery is the latest in a flurry of fusion concepts opening around the city.

Remuera’s top Japanese spot is bigger, sharper and an absolute must-book. In Village Green, this restaurant cuts a neat figure with its sashimi counter.

Grey Lynn’s new champion of hāngī pork belly and rēwena bread. The bistro’s menu moved from Italian fare to kai Māori, or a happy mix of both.

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