The crumble. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: The Timeless Promise Of Baduzzi

The Italian restaurant is renowned for its meatballs, but its most enduring quality is its quality

Cuisine: Italian
Address: 10-26 Jellicoe Wharf
Phone: (09) 309 9339
From the menu: Stracciatella piadina $22; king prawns $13.50ea; red deer meatballs $19.50; cacio e pepe $21; wood-fired scotch $49; rice pudding $18; tiramisu $19
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
Rating: 19/20
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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Michael Dearth is a rare example of a restaurant owner who walks the floor rather than working the knives. There are others in Auckland (the best of them are married to their chefs) but there surely can’t be any others doing it in two separate restaurants.

I’ve never eaten at Baduzzi or The Grove without Michael being there, which means he must have one of those time-turning devices he activates at the end of each shift, like Hermione in the third Harry Potter book.

So here he was again, of course, when we showed up at Baduzzi. A handsome American with charm and humour, he mentioned this time in passing that he’d once played gridiron football on a college scholarship, and watching him work a restaurant is even more fun once you know that.

There was one point where he was at another table with a bottle of red wine tucked under his arm like a pigskin and, though there were a lot of people and furnishings between us, I saw him look several metres through a keyhole and spot that my pregnant colleague was trying to order a ginger beer.

He caught her eye and nodded to her in exactly the same way he must have spotted a play unfolding in Connecticut 25 years ago — a man watching five things at once but free to take any new information that flies his way.

"The circular booth tables have plenty of room for plates, glasses and serving bowls and provide just about the cosiest place to eat in Auckland." Photo / Babiche Martens

With Michael or, really, with any good server you should leave your decision-making to them. The best thing about this is you’ll be served the loveliest, freshest things on the menu and you won’t need to worry about ordering the right amount of food.

(I should also mention the worst thing, which is that you lose some control over the final bill — as he emptied the last drop of a dessert wine made from rare grapes aged in clay buildings on a tiny windy island in the Strait of Sicily, I did start to get nervous about how much it was all going to cost.)

And just because you hand your food decisions to somebody else doesn’t mean you can’t give them some guidelines.

I’ve had a craving for simple pasta recently so asked for our feast to definitely include a bowl of cacio e pepe, then was about to ask for truffles with it when Michael, of course, asked if I wanted truffles with it. These came slightly less expensively than you might imagine, via a top-shelf pecorino infused with the heavenly fungus, and it was one of the best things I’ve eaten — shared four ways so you were left wanting just a little more truffle.

READ: The Grove's Michael Dearth Embarks On A French Odyssey

“I’ve bought you just a little more truffle,” Michael said and laid down a plate of ham jewelled with the good stuff, a cooked variation of the usually cured parma, which was fragrant and delicious.

The food is all shared here, so feasting is the way to go. The circular booth tables have plenty of room for plates, glasses and serving bowls and provide just about the cosiest place to eat in Auckland: all soft, spongy leather with plenty of snuggling potential if you’re on a date.

It’s been years since I ate here and the only thing they’ve changed is that a semi-outdoor area is newly insulated from the weather. I’d say that would increase your chances of a reasonable table at a reasonable time but though they weren’t full on the night we visited I hadn’t been able to get a reservation between 6pm and 8.30pm.

The shared steak. Photo / Babiche Martens

When something is popular it’s easy to take what they do for granted, but the thing that strikes me about Baduzzi is how much thought and care is still going into every decision, particularly around the food. They’re known as a high-quality meatball joint by the water and that would probably be enough to pay the bills but instead they’re aiming to be the best restaurant in the city.

I pride myself in being the first to new food but when I told Michael about a small regenerative farm I’d visited in Hawke’s Bay he said “you’re eating their beef steak right now”. Then I told him that last week I’d dropped in on an organic dairy conversion in Waipū, and he replied “I’m about to bring you a rice pudding made with their milk”.

He’s either one of the most knowledgeable foodies I’ve ever met, or he’s deeply in love with me and has been following me around on holiday.

My favourite thing might have been the wood-fired prawns: big, bright-orange things wrapped in pancetta with their shells on but with none of the strange slimy stuff you get with crustacea, and all of the big sea flavour, balanced with that salty cured pork belly.

But really, I’d be surprised if you didn’t love everything here. Amano gets a lot of big Italian love these days, and with good reason, but Baduzzi is just as reliable, in an interesting spot, with a personal touch that is very hard to create in a restaurant as flash as this. If it’s been five years since you’ve been here too, visit now and fall in love again.

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