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15° & RAINY ON FRIDAY 17 AUGUST IN AUCKLAND
By Skye Pathare
December 19, 2013
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Baduzzi

Food of the people, Italian-style.
By Skye Pathare
December 19, 2013
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Baduzzi, the word for meatball in the Sicilian dialect, is the Italian-American kid brother of The Grove, the lush blink-and-you'll-miss-it Metro darling by St. Patrick's Cathedral in town. Both establishments are helmed by restauranteur/executive chef dream team Michael Dearth and Ben Bayly.

The signs outside the restaurant, which occupies a sun-soaked corner on Jellicoe Street en route to Silo Park, promise "Food of the People". The philosophy behind The Grove's menu - food that retains a dab of comforting familiarity while being suitably exotic, food that tastes like food and not a show-off attempt - also underpins the pair's latest venture.

While The Grove's fare is French, Michael (a sommelier by trade), Connecticut-raised with Italian heritage, yearned to serve the food he'd grown up with, "it's not traditional Italian", says Ben. "It's the food that immigrants, particularly from Sicily and Sardinia, prepared in their new home: simple with just a few seasonal ingredients, but never dull." While Michael came up with the concept - "upmarket downmarket" - Ben was responsible for its execution, and he's done a fine job.

As Baduzzi is walk-in only for groups of fewer than eight, we arrived at close to nine o'clock on a Sunday evening and had the pick of the litter when it came to tables for two. I chose one good for people-watching on Fish Lane yet was more absorbed by the restaurant’s decor: swish leather banquettes, dark wood, and a stained-glass window sourced from an 18th century town hall in France throwing diamonds of light everywhere. My favourite feature was cute bespoke wallpaper that wouldn't be out of place in a nursery.

The menus, with old black-and-white portraits of Michael's relatives and the proverb "You never grow old at the dining table" in Italian, were presented to us by Alberto, the only waiter I've tipped in a long time. He was close to perfect the entire night, with the only issue being his almost-too-pretty voice: it was difficult to focus on the content rather than the cadence of his speech, especially when he delivered wine recommendations. With that accent, I'm pretty sure Alberto could appealingly describe the flavour and texture of pus.

We started with wild red deer meatballs from the Polpette section of the menu, solely because my dining companion had yet to taste venison. I've never been a fan of the rather bland meat, but it was sublime served with barely-there slivers of portobello and a dark, salty cauliflower crema. Alberto suggested a glass of 2009 Vindimian Rubi from the excellent wine list, which is mainly Italian, with a few French and Spanish tipples thrown in for good measure. The wine, a Teroldego, was lovely with the venison; strong and just dry enough to suck at your teeth a little.

The next item, from the Primi section, was saffron gnocchi: four delightful parcels stuffed with goats curd and sprinkled with burnt butter almonds and semi-sweet saffron disappeared in sixty seconds flat. It amazes me that this gnocchi and povo-yet-awesome pasta dishes like Easy Mac and spag bol fall under the same category of food. There'd be no war if society was as egalitarian as pasta.

For the Secondi, we ordered pulled milk-fed goat with grilled lettuce, polenta and rosemary. Neither of us had tried goat before and enjoyed the melt-in-your-mouth meat and rich sauce. The soft crunch of the lettuce was the ideal straight man to a dish that was perhaps a dash too overwhelming.

By the time we began perusing the dessert menu, the only punters left at Baduzzi were perched at the bar, chatting like old pals with a bartender decked out in red suspenders. The lighting had been dimmed and the music was decidedly mellow. Feeling reckless, I suggested we order two desserts (sharing is so stressful - spoon fights ensue more often than not). With Alberto's expert guidance, we settled on honey semifreddo and the daily special, strawberry bombe Alaska.

The semifreddo, sticky with honey, toffee and blood orange, was light and delectable. The Alaska was beautifully presented; a spiked off-white wrecking ball on a bed of edible flowers. I can take or leave meringue, but the tangy, deep violet strawberry ice cream underneath its bronze crust was a joy to eat.

It’s worth noting that while individual dishes are reasonably priced and flavoursome, the portion sizes err on the conservative side. You may need to spend big or risk leaving somewhat unsatisfied - a decent feed with a couple glasses of wine easily clocks in at $80 per head. I was stuffed to the brim with our lot, but my dining companion said he wanted to hit up Sal's afterward.

I’d gladly recommend Baduzzi to anyone – the food is 100% moreish and served in a relaxing, gorgeous environment. Next time I'll be sure to try the crayfish meatballs and courgette flowers - Ben's picks from the menu.

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