Jul 28, 2015 Restaurants
226 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby.
Ph 376 3095. prego.co.nz
Hours: Daily, noon-late.
Dinner bill: Starters $9.50-$18.50, mains $18.50-$58, desserts $14.50.
By Nicky Pellegrino. Photo by Georgia Bramley.
First published in the July/August 2015 issue of Metro.
It’s difficult to know how you would feel about Prego, walking through its doors for the very first time. It’s such an old-timer; for 29 years it’s been serving up Italian classics on Ponsonby Rd and inevitably any meal is coloured by memories — long lunches in the sunny courtyard, shouty conversations against the roar of noise in the dining room.
Prego has changed in that time, but gently, so as not to scare the regulars. A recent makeover of the décor is same-same-but-different. It’s still a minimalist, echo-filled space but panels attached to the ceiling have improved the acoustics — only a slight rise in the voice is required now to be heard by your dining companions, rather than a full-on bellow — and the chairs are friendlier to the bottom. This is good, because Prego isn’t one of those places where the plates come screaming from the kitchen quickly and unpredictably. Here you can still get your own meal; yes, a whole dish just for you, delivered by informed wait staff at a dignified pace. This is a restaurant to go to for dinner rather than just to eat. To linger and chat, not simply to chow down.
The food has been refined over the years. Most of the classics are still on offer — in fact, they now have their own section of the menu: pizza served on a wooden board, fillet of fish on herbed risotto that’s a favourite of figure-conscious ladies who lunch (it’s swimming in butter, by the way, so you’re kidding yourselves), iconic pasta puttanesca, though I can’t imagine why anyone would order this when the whole point is that it’s a lazy dish you can chuck together at home with stuff out of tins.
While they’re not going to risk ditching too many old favourites, there is constant fine-tuning. Things are less homely, more refined. Even the doughy bread served warm from the oven has transformed into an artisan loaf from Mt Eden bakery Olaf’s. A new menu heralds a bigger change than the usual subtle tweak, with more nibbly options like bruschetta and smaller plates for under $20 to make for flexible ordering — not necessarily sharing, you understand, although they’re not going to stop you.
For the most part, winter at Prego is about hearty meats with comforting creamy polenta or tender gratins. These dishes may not take your breath away with their daring but they are carefully balanced. A meltingly soft beef short rib in a wine-laced gravy has the sour bite of pickled baby onions to take the edge off. The salty richness of a veal saltimbocca is leavened by a mound of crunchy greens.
Italian food is all about restraint. It’s like an elegant woman getting ready for a party and carefully removing one accessory before she walks out the door. However, simplicity of flavour isn’t the same thing as boring and the kitchen at Prego gets that. The fish stew is laced with dill and Pernod but they are rolling around together happily in the tangy tomato sauce rather than fighting for attention. There is truffle oil in a dish of pinkly roasted lamb and sweet onions, but not so much it clears your sinuses. The arancini are nothing but fried balls of rice and cheese, but they’re miraculously light and airy, not leaden pellets of carbohydrate.
Prego has thrived for almost three decades because it’s a restaurant that knows exactly what it is. If they’re going to fine-tune anything else, it should be the lighting. While I love things dimmed down as much as the next woman with overdue Botox, at night out in the courtyard there are patches of inky blackness where you don’t have a hope of reading the menu without a torch app on your smartphone.
And while it’s heart-warming to see three generations of a family sharing a meal and the faces of the little children lighting up when their desserts are delivered complete with a flickering candle, I feel distinctly chillier of heart when the darlings decide to have a wrestling match in front of the bar — mum, dad, do something!
How we review
Every restaurant is visited at least twice and rated for what it is trying to do: a superb bistro and superb fine-dining place both get 5 spoons. We pay for our meals and if possible do not declare our presence.
We’d eat here if we had to – 1 Spoon
Good, but it really should be better – 2 Spoons
Very good – 3 Spoons
Extremely good – 4 Spoons
Superb: among the very best of its kind – 5 Spoons