Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


5 November 2014


Restaurateurs who have the knack can make a restaurant timeless. Walk into Prego and the veritable buzz is as vitally charged as it was on the day owner Kelvin Gibson bought it in 1986. At that time we had all fallen in love with the fab Italian inspired menu and we’re still in love with it.

The place has always been noisy, has always felt a tad too crammed and there‘s always been that gorgeous outdoor courtyard, filled with some of the city’s best celebs and pretenders who want to be seen lurking in style on Ponsonby Road. Recently Kelvin undertook a timely refurbishment and the gorgeous green tiled walls, the new comfortable chairs, the ceiling baffles (which may or may not have reduced the noise level) and the bright new paint have lent new vigour.

But what’s not changed is Chef Lennox Bull’s menu. He arrived in 2008, inherited food that was beloved by scores of regulars and wisely has not messed with that. He deals with a vast menu but it is hard to fault a single dish. Antipasta, pizza, pasta, grills and sweet treats are all there. They are classics. He tweaks it occasionally but it is a reliable bet that if you love something you will return and eat it again. Over and over.

First things first. That Bread. Yes! A warm, shiny, puffy loaf is delivered to the table sitting atop a bread board, accompanied by a bread knife and a bowl of good olive oil mixed with good balsamic. Cut into it and it squashes before your eyes. There’s enough for four or six people but I have seen couples devour the whole thing in the time it takes to drink that first glass of wine. And if you’re looking for something in the same vein but a little lighter you can order the thin crisp garlic and olive oil pizza bread, also straight from the oven.

Next. Pizza. Prego pizzas are known around town. No pineapple or other silly contortions but fabulously fresh Italian styled pizzas on thin crisp crusts produced by that same pizza chef, Kava Likiafu, for the past 24 years. Perfect lunchtime fare or for sharing at large table.

And a shared table is a great way to dine at Prego as there’s so much worth eating if you can get to split little tastes of this and that. Classics not to be missed: crunchy tender calamari fritti with garlic aioli and thoughtful rocket leaves on the side that cut the intensity of the dish, the vitello tonnato with its crispy capers scattered over the veal and tuna, and melt in the mouth arancini balls stuffed with gorgonzola.

Pasta lovers are spoilt for choice with about eight different classic pasta choices, but my favourite in that section of the menu is actually a risotto. Shreds of roast duck, mixed mushrooms and perfectly moist rice cooked with a tasty stock could get me back and back to eat this dish again and again. Risotto also stars in the fish of the day dish and it’s been that way for yonks. Tender pan fried fillets perch over a soft lemony, herby risotto and it’s no accident that you will see lots of other diners eating this lovely combination.

Everyone deserves to have the Prego pie at least once in their life. The filling changes daily - it might be smoked fish, beef with rich porcini gravy or something else dreamed up by the chef, but it is always sitting on a mound of very moist potato parmesan mash and lovely wine jus gently lapping the edges.

The menu may be filled with Prego classics, but what were these dishes I spied recently? Gunaciale. beef cheeks gently slow braised with cocoa served with a parsnip and goat cheese puree and roma tomatoes, and a nutty barbabietole, warm roast beetroot, hazelnuts, goats cheese, and aged balsamic. Dishes that prove that while the favourites are as good as ever, there is room, imagination and respect in the kitchen for modern touches and ideas. Both dishes well recommended.

What is very interesting at Prego is the wine list. Being the social place it is, wine is a very important part of the experience. You’d think Italian fare encouraged Italian wine but the management know that we all love local New Zealand wines. They choose the best for their menu. Even though it is infanticide to drink it now, there on the wine list, Felton Road Block Three 2012 pinot noir. It may set you back $180 but it’s probably the only way most of us will ever get to experience this star of Central Otago. Of course there’s also plenty of more modestly priced choices and lots of wine by the glass on offer. Interestingly the only two wines from Italy on the white wine list are worth a try. A rosé from Puglia, that newly fashionable destination and of course, a pinot grigio from the Veneto.

To finish it would be hard to go past the cheese selection or for dessert lovers, a classic tiramisu. Or maybe throw caution to the wind and order Prego’s cioccolato, an amazing concoction of Valrhona caramel chocolate marquise with salted peanut caramel sauce and chocolate pearls. If that sounds good at $14.50 why not upgrade to the recommended Prego espresso martini cocktail for mere extra $17.50? Expensive indulgence but worth it.

There’s no show however without Punch. Manager Brandon Lela’ulu has looked after the rich, the famous, the passionate, the new and the regular diners at Prego for over 12 years. He’s the consummate host and ensures that everyone is well served, and that service flows seamlessly in a friendly, unpretentious manner.

Prego, 226 Ponsonby Road, phone 09 376 3095 No bookings, apart from the large table to the rear for very large groups. Open 7 days from noon until late.

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