Classy touches boost ap­peal

The Press - Zest - - Reviews - With Ewan Sar­gent

You need your eyes firmly on the road while driv­ing along the cone-strewn tem­po­rary lane jig­saw that is St Asaph St, but even so there’s no miss­ing the big glow­ing red V that shouts to the world: here is Cafe Valentino.

The sign is backed up by the big brash fit-out. It’s a ca­coph­ony of de­sign with red, yel­low, wooden ceil­ing, brick walls, back­lit cab­i­nets, framed posters, tiles, booths, and on it goes.

Cafe Valentino has been open a cou­ple of years here, its new home af­ter two decades in Colombo St be­fore it was ‘‘quaked’’ in 2011. A nice touch is a bat­tered look­ing bot­tle of Pen­folds Grange in a tro­phy cabi­net on the wall that was pulled from the rub­ble.

The ta­bles are packed tightly but the soar­ing high ceil­ings of the old So­cial Credit build­ing make it feel spa­cious yet buzzy.

While you can get more main­stream mains – such as steak and chicken and lamb (most with an Ital­ian tweak) – we wanted a more ca­sual meal and so turned to the pas­tas and pizza. It’s a big menu with lots of choices, which can some­times be off-putting be­cause you won­der how a kitchen can take a dish se­ri­ously with so many dif­fer­ent things to han­dle. But the staffing is re­as­sur­ingly big and the open plan kitchen at the back was full of chefs whose oc­ca­sional hob flame-ups added to the spec­ta­cle.

Put­tanesca’s my favourite pasta sauce and this was a chance to try out a pizza ver­sion and also test the heav­ily tiled, im­ported Ital­ian wood-fired oven.

I rate it a very good pizza, with a lovely charred thin base. The top­ping had gutsy flavours from an­chovies, olives, whole roasted gar­lic bulbs, ca­pers, a de­cent tomato sauce and sev­eral creamy pools of melted moz­zarella. But I couldn’t spot any wood smoke flavour­ing from the oven.

Also good was ‘‘three cheese’’ and pesto ravi­oli served in a thick rich creamy sauce. This was topped by crunchy wal­nuts and a gar­nish of broc­coli. Blue cheese dom­i­nated the flavour, which is a plus. More pesto in the ravi­oli would have lifted the dish fur­ther. The ravi­oli pasta was sig­nif­i­cantly silkier and bet­ter than the other pas­tas – the riga­toni and spaghetti.

A big bowl of spaghetti bolog­naise was al­most life­less. The meat sauce was one of the bland­est I’ve struck in a long time. Thank­fully, the ta­ble condi­ments in­clude salt, pep­per, chilli oil, chilli flakes and grated parme­san so you can add oomph your­self, but this was a re­sus­ci­ta­tion case.

Much bet­ter was riga­toni melanze, large grooved tubes of pasta tossed with a rich Neapolitan sauce that starred those roasted gar­lic bulbs, basil leaves and fea­tured crispy fried egg­plant strips on top.

Tiramisu was a must among the desserts. There are so many vari­a­tions, but Cafe Valentino’s ap­proach is clas­sic and sat­is­fy­ing. There’s a gen­tle al­co­hol kick, a lovely cof­fee kick, soaked lay­ers of bis­cuit, re­strained cream lay­er­ing, a co­coa dust­ing and a pool of cof­fee sauce to dip it in.

Cafe Valentino’s wine list is vast and fea­tures plenty of Ital­ian op­tions. The ser­vice was pleas­ant but staff were very busy and al­ways poised to bolt to the next task. It was an en­joy­able visit with plenty of qual­ity touches.


Wood-fired: The im­ported pizza oven has pride of place at the rear of the build­ing.

The Put­tanesca Pizza

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