Italy in Wellington
Nestled in a small side street in semi-industrial Petone is a much loved Wellington restaurant, La Bella Italia. The owner is Antonio Cacace who hails from Massalubrense on the Amalfi Coast. Antonio is passionate about bringing Italy to New Zealand and sharing Italian values of eating, sharing and talking around the table together.
Stepping into the restaurant one finds oneself in a European eaterie with the deli down one side, some Italian grocery shopping opposite and tables set out in the middle. The kitchen is at the far end with an open view to the restaurant. People can come to shop, have coffee and cake or gelato, or sit down for a delicious lunch or dinner. There is always a warm smiling welcome from Antonio’s wife Luisa and, of course, Antonio is not far away as he chats to diners, greets friends and offers hospitality.
Antonio’s philosophy of food is that it should be simple and fresh with high quality ingredients that don’t need a lot of work to shine and taste fabulous. Provenance lamb fits perfectly with this philosophy and that, he says is why he uses it in his restaurant. “Superb meat!”, he exclaims.
His approach to food is shared by his long-time associate and friend, Jonathan England, who heads the kitchen team.
Jonathan has been with Antonio for about 12 years. He loves Italian cooking and, with Antonio, believes it is all down to shopping for the freshest and best quality ingredients which are then cooked simply. He has no time for out of season vegetables (“how can you make a Caprese salad with a winter tomato and no basil?!”) and delights in using the seasonal vegetables and herbs on offer.
Today he has roasted a boned out shoulder of Provenance lamb and sliced it onto a bed of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomato, garlic, chilli and oregano with extra virgin olive oil, making a delicious Carbonata sauce. Just 2 trays in the oven, he says, simple but totally delicious, and a recipe that will take them through the summer with the seasonal vegetables. Adding salsa verde as a garnish adds piquancy to the dish.
Jonathan is proud to stand behind these simple cooking techniques, tried and tested over time to consistently produce wonderful food. “The skill comes”, he says, “in selecting the ingredients and letting them speak.”
Antonio is the wine matcher and we have fun with him at the table. Wine, he says with a wink, is not the only thing that he matches around here.
But today he will select a style of wine he believes complements the lamb in its subtlety, roundness and light touch on the palate. He is proud of the wine produced by grapes only grown in that region of southern Italy, and as they eat a lot of lamb in Sicily, the match is ideal. He doesn’t want the wine to overpower the lamb.
We also sample a lamb ragout for our lunch at La Bella. The lamb had been cooked with onions, garlic, pancetta, carrots, celery and herbs in olive oil and was delicious, also pairing well with the red wine. If it weren’t so delicious you could almost say it is Italian comfort food.
Jonathan’s favourite culinary influences are Marco Pierre White, Pierre Kaufman and Antonio’s father who came to visit in 2003. He was a chef in Italy and taught Antonio to love food and cook well.
Jonathan and Antonio’s father didn’t share much common language but had a wonderful time together sharing cooking tips and tasting food. He was impressed with the range of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish available in New Zealand and the freshness of the produce.
Antonio laughs when he remembers his first visit here to meet his wife’s family about 30 years ago. He couldn’t believe how dead Wellington became at 6pm on the dot – no one on the streets, no shops open and at a time he regarded as afternoon! He rang his relatives to ask if there had been a bomb scare!
He loves the way New Zealand has grown since those days, the variety of ingredients available and the production of the best wine and meat in the world. Sourcing ingredients for the restaurant has become easier with the New Zealand pantry expanding with extra virgin olive oil, great cheeses, seasonal produce and wine readily available.
Both Jonathan and Antonio are very happy with the quality, freshness, taste and tenderness of Provenance lamb. Jonathan finds it easy to handle in the kitchen and believes it is from happy animals as the meat is of exceptional quality. He is using shoulders for the regular dishes of boneless roasts and ragouts, and sometimes offering a leg or rack of lamb on the menu as a special dish. They buy chef ready cuts from Provenance though occasionally break down a six way cut carcass.
Antonio adds that the quality fits well with their philosophy of food. As his father told him, if the product is of the highest quality, then 80% of the chef’s job is done.
The restaurant menu is almost entirely Italian though cooking and produce from all the different regions is presented. Antonio has developed an Italian experience at La Bella with coffee, gelato, cakes, meals, shopping, on-line shopping, Italian tours and cooking classes.
He loves seeing families eating and talking together, sharing a central plate of food, handing the bread or salad around and enjoying time together. He sums this up as breaking bread together, a beautiful Italian tradition planted in New Zealand.