The tagliatelle al ragu on the menu at Puglia. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: Italian Eatery Puglia Ticks All The Boxes But Doesn't Make The Grade

Our dining out editor can find little to praise at Kingsland’s latest Italian restaurant

PUGLIA
Cuisine: Italian
Address: 509 New North Rd, Kingsland
Phone: (09) 558 2631
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
From the menu: Bruschetta $14.90; prawn cocktail $18.90; calamari $16; baked chicken $28.90; four cheese gnocchi $24.90; fish of the day $34.90; orecchiette pasta $26.90
Rating: 9/20
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.

I've eaten at almost 200 restaurants in your service as Viva’s dining out editor, so I thought now might be a good time to tell you how hard we work to avoid talking about those that don’t make the grade.

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There’s one argument that a reviewer should only talk about the good places. That doesn’t hold much water with me — why should I let you spend your money in a terrible, high-profile restaurant when I know that I could warn you away? What sort of a wingman would I be?

The interior of Puglia. Photo / Babiche Martens

Nonetheless, we don’t enjoy being horrible for sport. Some of the most famous and funny international food writers made their name as assassins, but though I enjoy a roast as much as the next guy it doesn’t feel very Viva or indeed very Kiwi. So I eat mostly at restaurants that look good, or look as though they ought to be good. Sometimes we even give them a bit of breathing room after opening, to sort their stuff out.

But this week I can’t avoid it. I ate dinner at a restaurant that ticked all the boxes: a regional Italian restaurant in Kingsland where the owner came from that region and the chef makes the pasta fresh each day. It’s a region I know well after eating my way through it a few years ago, and I recognised a few of my favourite dishes on the menu. Even if there were faults, I thought, I could fill the review out with some stories of my own.

Pasta is made fresh daily at Puglia. Photo / Babiche Martens

But something has gone terribly wrong at Puglia. Let’s start with the pasta, which is indeed handmade — I don’t think you could find a machine that could mangle dough like this. I ordered orecchiette, a Pugliese standard which translates to “little ears”. It’s a great starter pasta for anybody wanting to have a go at making their own — all you need to do is mix up the dough, roll it into a cigar then cut little bits off one by one and mould them on your thumb to create a tiny shell.

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But the orecchiette at Puglia restaurant are the size and shape of actual human ears. When I bit into one I discovered it was the texture of a human ear too — some soft parts, plenty of gristle and a waxy inner. They say you should cook 100g of pasta in 1000ml of water but there can’t have been more than half of that in the pot because certain parts of these anatomical catastrophes had not been in boiling water at all — I could tell because they were still crunchy.

The calamari and bruschetta on the menu at Puglia. Photo / Babiche Martens

Across the table, my dining companion/co-victim ordered big eye tuna, which came as a triangular steak with reassuring sear marks on both sides. But the fish was cooked right through, giving it the gourmet appeal of something that had been emptied on to the plate from a can. You can cook this fish fast and rare or very slowly and thoroughly, but no combination of the two will do [settles into armchair and puffs on pipe].

When I was in Puglia I stopped at a roadside olive oil stall and, because I didn’t have a container, they filled a 1.5 litre Coke bottle with a dark green, unfiltered, freshly pressed oil. I had so much of the stuff that we bought a tuna loin from the fish market then took it back to our trulli and poached it slowly, fully submerged in a sort of confit. It’s a luxury I wouldn’t recommend at New Zealand prices but you should try it once in your life.

Outdoor seating at Puglia. Photo / Babiche Martens

How much more do you want? The prawn cocktail was advertised as coming in a “rosy cocktail” sauce but it was more like thinned mayonnaise which puddled at the bottom of the plate, soaking the thinly sliced iceberg. The bruschetta featured barely ripe, unseasoned supermarket tomatoes diced and heaped on two pieces of toast. It cost $14.90. Calamari had been lightly battered but again without seasoning — a great dish for people who enjoy the taste of hot flour. It came without sauce or dip.

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The most heartbreaking thing is that the service staff are lovely, authentic and don’t seem to know how bad the food is. They implored us to stay for a complimentary limoncello but I’m afraid we couldn’t wait to escape. A lot of work is needed here. I hope they can turn it around.

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