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Review: Café Valentino

“Choose wisely and pace yourself,” is the advice from our super friendly host Lucy Popovic. “You’ll want to try something from the daily specials and make sure you leave room for dessert.” It’s sage advice; Café Valentino’s made-from-scratch, hearty Italian fare has made it an institution on the local dining scene and a go-to venue of choice for visiting celebrities, with their desserts the stuff of legend.

It’s a Friday night and Valentino’s is the dictionary definition of buzzin’, with excited chatter, relaxed laughter and the clink of glasses and cutlery of those celebrating the start of the weekend murmuring away in the relaxed atmosphere. The pretension-free, easy-going vibe makes it super easy to kick back and enjoy the moment. We’re seated in the Italian-chic window section; it’s the perfect spot to watch the city pass by beyond the brightly-coloured blooms of the geraniums filling the planter boxes. We peruse the menus between sips of Peroni (from the tap, natch), clearly in good company under the knowing gaze of delighted previous diners Norah Jones, Diana Krall, UB40, Hi-de-Hi!’s Su Pollard (while touring The Good Sex Guide back in 1996) and more, whose admiration, plastered across their tour posters, hangs framed and jostling for space on the exposed brick wall running the length of the restaurant.

Valentinos pizza

Our starters aptly set the scene; Arancini balls are normally able to be popped in the mouth whole (or at a two-bite maximum), but a trio of Valentino’s versions are huge, and delight when cut open to reveal they’re crammed with a rich risotto of mushrooms and spinach, with molten taleggio cheese spilling from the half-orbs. Smeared with a tangy tomato chutney and scattering of peppery rocket, their savoury goodness ensures a clean plate returns to the kitchen. Likewise, the satisfying crunch of the crispy squid – humming with a light chilli hit and bangin’ Manuka-smoked garlic and lemon aioli – incites duelling forks over the last piece.

I ask our super-attentive host Anna Smith to recommend a wine to go with our mains, Ravioli of the Day (pumpkin and ricotta) and the Agnello Fumato wood-fired pizza, expecting a red. To my delight she not only surprises with the selection of a Jules Taylor Chardonnay, but hits it out of the park – this multitasking battler’s oaky notes and lingering finish are the perfect counterpoint to both the earthiness of the pumpkin and crisp sweetness of the capsicum inside the fresh ravioli, and the light gaminess of the tender smoked lamb and saltiness of the creamy feta on the wood-fired pizza. Sliced almonds add a delightful crunch to the ravioli, which seduces with a silken creamy tomato sauce complete with bacon and spinach, while the Manuka wood-fuelled pizza oven turns out one of the best pizzas we’ve had in the city.

Valentino 3

Thankful for Lucy’s advice, we still have room (just) for dessert. With each offering sounding better than the last, we finally whittle it down to their legendary Tiramisu (a dreamy, creamy symphony of chocolaty, espresso-spiked heaven) and heavy-hitting Dessert of the Day the double-decked Double Chocolate Pudding Tart. Featuring decadent layers of milk and white chocolate atop a rich, crumbly base, its spiced berry compote tamed by vanilla-infused soft cream provides a most excellent sticky ending.

Images: Jane Wyles.

Café Valentino
168 St Asaph Street
03 377 1886
www.cafevalentino.co.nz

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