Apr 13, 2021 Restaurants
Two minutes after I sat down at Pici, my eyes started to droop. I was perched under a hot, bright lamp. A useless fan spinning a metre above my head seemed to be supplying only those in the upstairs mezzanine with any hint of a breeze. It was hot — hot hot — and it made me sleepy, like a sauna does. But I soon found it easier to sit and embrace the heat than complain. Like everything at Pici, the heat became part of its charm; the tiny restaurant felt like an immersive bubble. Although I probably wouldn’t say no to a better fan.
Pici has been packed out from day one. I was there on opening night. It was giving out free pasta, a generous but completely unnecessary act (people were always going to flock to the cool new wine bar on Karangahape Rd). But, I also understood it. It felt like it was trying to participate in, and give back to, the K’ Rd community it was now a part of.
On opening night, the pasta was not good. The pici cacio e pepe was severely lacking freshly ground pepper, a crucial part of the dish. The fettuccine with asparagus and guanciale was limp and under-seasoned. The best thing I ate that night was the cheesecake, a baseless hunk of citrusy creaminess simply dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt. When I asked the server what dessert to order, they suggested the cheesecake. “I never knew that cheesecake could taste so good.” I recognised them from previously working the floor at Federal Delicatessen, Al Brown’s
SkyCity diner famous for its New York cheesecake, so I figured Pici’s interpretation had to be pretty damn good. And it was.
Three months later, I dropped in for a solo pici cacio e pepe and wine (Patrick Sullivan’s Breakfast Wine on tap). In 2019, I wrote an entire article about cacio e pepe in Auckland and how I couldn’t find a single place that did a passable version of the dish. I wanted something intensely peppery, spicy almost, with a pecorino sharpness (though to some degree I accept most places will use parmesan) and a non-cream creaminess. The cacio e pepe at Pici three months after opening night was a complete 180: the doughy hand-rolled pici pasta was perfectly chewy and perfectly flavoured; the pepper hit had been dialled up to an eight when before it was only a two. The dish, well executed in its simplicity, was so tasty that I scraped up all the sauce with the side of my fork. When the bartender thought to ask me whether I wanted any bread to mop up the rest, there was no sauce left.
All the pasta at Pici is made fresh every morning in-house, though most of it (rigatoni, spaghettini and fettuccine) is extruded; for example, Pici’s rigatoni emerges tubular-shaped from the machine through a die until someone gives it a swift chop. Some people (i.e. chefs) have their backs up about using an extruder versus hand-rolling the pasta, partly because of its association with the dried box variety. (Dried versus fresh pasta is an argument for another day.) Using an extruder, though, can create a consistency and uniformity which handmade otherwise lacks. Certain types of pasta, like bucatini, can’t even be made without an extruder, so thinking something is superior just because the process is less automatic seems like a particularly backward way of looking at things. If Pici were to start making cacio e pepe with bucatini, the perfect pasta shape for that cheese sauce, I would be beyond happy.
The kitchen was bustling when I returned yet again. The people in there were bumping elbows, pasta constantly on the pass waiting for servers to give it one last once-over with cheese before ferrying it out onto tables. We got the rigatoni with pork and fennel sausage ragù and fettuccine with prawns, ’nduja and bisque. The first time I ate here, everything was undersalted; this time around, the rigatoni was on the verge of too salty, extremely moreish — a winter pasta. Deeply savoury, it was easy to like, but the meat kept slipping off the tubes; I ended up just mopping it up with focaccia instead. (Also, the staff may tell you there’s enough sauce in the pastas to dip focaccia in, but really there wasn’t.)
The rigatoni itself had a smooth mouthfeel but lacked springiness, which was the same complaint I had for the fettuccine — most likely the downside of not drying that extruded pasta first; dried pasta tends to achieve a better al dente bite. But the flavour of this fettuccine dish was light and fresh, with a slight heat from ‘nduja and a subtle seafood bisque tying it together (every strand was coated and glistening).
Despite its faults, I enjoyed eating both the pastas; nothing I ate at Pici seemed unnecessarily overwrought. The cooking felt instinctual, born out of the general model of doing just one type of thing well, which is a style of restaurant I wish there were more of. I liked that dishes were served up on plain enamel plates with little fanfare; that my glass of Millton Libiamo Giallo wine cost only $12; and that dessert arrived within two minutes. (The dessert was an almond semifreddo, splashed with dark chocolate sauce. It was a tad too icy out of the freezer; get the cheesecake instead.)
Pici’s fit-out maximises the little space it has. The walls are old and textured; the decor wood and marble. (“This is so… Melbourne!” someone from the table next to us yelled, which is funny, and something I hear a lot in every single new wine bar in Auckland, as if Melbourne invented the concept.) Space is tight, and it seats more people than Revolver, the Sri Lankan cafe that was in here before. Before Revolver, of course, it was Fort Greene, which moved down the road and is probably enjoying all the extra room.
I’m not entirely sure why Revolver closed, but I’m guessing that it’s getting mighty expensive to be in St Kevins Arcade now, or indeed anywhere on Karangahape Rd. Eating and drinking places have moved in and out of the arcade swiftly since the sale in 2015 to The Icon Group; at the time of writing, there’s yet another bar with brown paper stuck on the inside of its windows waiting to open right across from Pici, called Tomfoolery.
Of all the places that have opened on K’ Rd very recently, Pici is probably my favourite, so I hope it endures in this little space in this unforgiving arcade.
Shop 22, St Kevins Arcade, 183 Karangahape Rd, K’ Rd Precinct
Hours: Tuesday & Sunday 5.30pm-9pm; Wednesday- Thursday noon-10pm; Friday-Saturday noon-11pm
DINNER BILL: Antipasti $6-$18; pasta $15-$26; sweets $7-$12
This review was published in our Autumn 2021 issue, which was released in March 2021.