Restaurant Review: Cotto, K Rd

Delicious and affordable, Jesse Mulligan falls instantly in love

The interior of Cotto. Picture / Nick Reed

Cuisine: Pasta
Phone: (09) 394 1555
Address: 375 K Road
Reservations: Accepted for large groups only
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Tomato salad $5, Spinach dumplings $15, Baby beets $15, Maltagliati $20, Cappelletti $20, Chocolate nemesis $10
Rating: 18/20
Score: 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

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At the end of a restaurant meal, after I’ve paid the bill, I tell the person behind the counter that I’m a reviewer with Viva, and that I’ll be writing about my experience in an upcoming issue. It’s a necessarily uncomfortable conversation made worse if they ask “so how did you enjoy it?” and I reply by smiling mysteriously, shrugging my shoulders and saying something like “I guess we’ll both find out next week”.

I’d like to tell them “it was great, you have nothing to worry about” but if I start giving honest feedback I open myself up to arguments before the thing is published, and it’s really easier for everybody if they just wait and read about it in the paper. Plus, sometimes I don’t really know how I feel until I’ve digested the experience for a couple of days ... “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” is how one writer once memorably put it. I like another quote I came across recently: “Thoughts are formed in the mouth.”

But I loved Cotto as soon as I walked in, and when I left I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. I must have recommended it to five different people the following day, and then they started passing on my recommendations in public forums like Twitter and, really, if the owners are paying attention, they’ll already know that this is going to be a great review of their excellent business.

Handmade pasta is the name of the game at Cotto. Picture / Fiona Goodall

Cotto is in a building formerly occupied by a restaurant called 69. As Viva’s eating out editor I can tell you with authority that 69 was not good, and left a bad taste in my mouth lasting weeks. I reviewed it so badly that I used to dread biking past the place each day, and it was a great relief when I saw that the kitchen had been closed down and taken over a few months later.

While nothing much has changed in terms of layout, you can feel the difference as soon as you walk in. The new staff are just fantastic — fast and smart and friendly — and the room throngs with the combined sound of upbeat music and happy eating. I read the menu while the bartender fixed me a drink (I’m not a cocktail guy generally but I’ve got a thing for negronis right now — what a way to say goodbye to the daylight hours) and I immediately knew it was going to be a great night.

READ: Restaurant Review: Hot Hot, Mt Eden

I ate with my friend Sandon, who noted the similarities between Cotto and the early days of Orphans Kitchen, where the food was delicious and cheap, the staff knew exactly what they were doing and everyone who ate there seemed to leave in a good mood.

I wonder what the formula is to make an environment so appealing to a young crowd that don’t tend to dine in this sort of restaurant — the price is certainly part of it, with appetisers at $5 and entrees at $15 you could eat well on a $20 note and hope somebody offered to buy you a nice glass of wine to go with it. With that sort of set-up, a restaurateur needn’t sit through months of quiet nights waiting to be discovered — diners leave bursting to spread the word.

The ricotta and spinach balls served with crispy sage butter; sidle up to Cotto bar for a fine selection of gin, vodka and negroni cocktails. Picture / Nick Reed

Tomato salads often sound better than they taste but the $5 version here is perfect — perfect temperature, perfect seasoning of salt and olive oil and a few slivers of dressed shallots adding some spicy interest. Ricotta and spinach dumplings were mostly fresh spinach, mixed with enough cheese to form a golf ball-sized sphere then quickly deep fried until springy and served with sage crisped in butter. The beet salad featured a sliver of hard white cheese to counter the beetroot and a more liquid-style ricotta served with burnt walnut pesto. That pesto was so nutty it almost tasted like a satay sauce, and we enjoyed mouthfuls of the stuff without pausing for breath.

These are sharing dishes and I would note at this stage that there are cutlery issues — some missing forks, which could happen anywhere, but also a curious practice of serving messy food with small serated tongs. You’re doing very well if you can transfer any of that ricotta to your plate.

READ: Tasty Pasta Recipes To Make

The mains feature Cotto’s signature handmade pasta — a saffron “maltagliati” (wide noodles) with slow cooked lamb shank and bright, citrusy gremolata when we visited, along with cappelletti: open pasta cups filled with a cheesy cream and fresh corn from the cob. It is unbelievably good stuff, and judiciously portioned so you don’t walk out feeling like you’re about to give birth to a one-kilo bag of “00” flour.

The restaurant is across the road from the exquisite Coco’s Cantina and I’m so buzzed on Cotto right now I’m not sure which I’d choose tonight if you put a gun to my head. Go as soon as you can, but don’t tell too many of your friends or neither of us will ever get in again.

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