Ponsonby institution Prego has been operating since 1986. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jesse Mulligan Reviews Prego, An Italian Institution On Ponsonby Rd

A visit to Prego on a cold winter night made dining out editor Jesse Mulligan feel happy to be alive

Cuisine: Italian
Phone: (09) 376 3095
Address: 226 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Polpette $18; burrata $19.90; gnocchi $30; confit duck $42; capricciosa pizza $25.5; spaghetti aglio e olio $15; seasonal vegetables $12
Rating: 17/20
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 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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A quick shout-out this week to children’s meals, a small but significant sub-genre of dining out heavily reliant on felt-tip pens. I used to think that restaurants had time for only two sittings each night but I’ve discovered there’s a third, where families arrive at 5pm, quickly order, eat and are out the door by 5.03pm.

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Though it’s an expensive way to feed your children, it saves cleaning up at home, plus it’s a rare chance to combine good parenting with rapid drinking — in most other places you’d get funny looks if you necked 150ml of semillon in the time it takes your daughter to colour in an elephant’s trunk.

By the fireplace. Photo / Babiche Martens

I don’t know how lucrative this type of business is for restaurants but if you own a good broom and can cook quickly then surely you’d be a fool to turn down the money. My random and non-exhaustive list of places that do it well includes Azabu, Baduzzi, Giraffe and Prego — the latter possibly where it all began, being Yummy Daddy central and home to decent pizza, the ultimate kidult convenience food you can cook in five seconds flat.

Children are also a comfortable stretch for Prego’s legendary service staff — a screaming 4-year-old creating very little stress for waiters who cut their teeth serving men who work in advertising.

Prego is so good with children that I was beginning to lose touch with what it was like to eat here with adults, so I dropped in with friends one Thursday night to check that it was still worth its reputation. The restaurant was full and, after a decent wait in a bar space not quite big enough for the job, we were led to a good table surrounded by happy people getting exactly what they needed. Though we didn’t get to order until about an hour after arriving, you can’t really blame the restaurant for that — there were plenty of staff on and all of them were seriously hustling to get the job done.

Prego’s capricciosa pizza. Photo / Babiche Martens

It’s a long and, if I’m honest, not terribly exciting menu but everything tastes great. They have a list of “Prego classics” but even the dishes in the newer section must all be 10 years old. You come here for familiarity and consistency and if the worst you can say is that the whole thing is a bit safe, well, none of the people queuing for tables were going to go home and complain about it.

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For my entree I ordered the side of spaghetti aglio olio, the most authentically simple Italian dish on the menu in that it had very little in it but relied on decent ingredients and confidence in the chef. It was good al dente spaghetti with lovely spice and flavour even if you had to dig and mix to get to the pool of olive oil at the bottom.

That combination of garlic, chilli, parmigiano and parsley is so good that I’d recommend it even though they’d stuffed up the spaghetti by under-salting the water (there’s no amount of salt-shaking at the table that can fix this). By the way, if a bare pasta with a couple of ingredients is just too plain, you can get the jazzed-up version with feta and olives from the main menu but I wouldn’t bother, the simple option is a great way to make room for more complicated flavours later.

Prego is "hard to fault and easy to love", says Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens

The gnocchi is very good: light and loose dumplings with just enough gluten to hold them together when you bite through. Served with sage, pumpkin, walnuts and blue cheese, it was about the most beautiful mouthful of flavour you could imagine and I’d find it difficult not to order it again if I went back. I also loved the polpette, pork meatballs that had survived the cooking process without any dryness, served with a reduced smoky tomato sauce and fried breadcrumbs.

Pizza did the job it was intended to do and my confit duck was incredibly tender, with golden kumara and a sweet condiment of apple, cabbage, fig and sherry. There are few places you can get this sort of high-end European comfort food and on a cold winter weeknight it made me happy to be alive.

The gnocchi with pumpkin, sage and walnuts. Photo / Babiche Martens

Meanwhile those incredible staff are at your table constantly, refilling your water glasses and making sure you never run out of booze. If the price of this attention is that you have to wait a little longer to get seated in the first place then I think I’d accept those terms.

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Maybe they could comp a bowl of nuts or something while you’re at the bar — we really were so very hungry — but in the end I was glad we had time to try their chilli margarita, a drink which feels like summer but is at its best in winter when ripe limes are hanging heavy on the tree. Like Prego, it was hard to fault and easy to love.

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