Warm welcome on cold nights
Francesca's Italian Kitchen is a little gem in Wanaka, snuck in between the creek and a car park. It's just shy of the lakefront: don't come for the views but for the atmosphere. And, of course, the food.
We book ahead. We've turned up on spec before and sat outside by the creek, but this time we're inside. Plaster and wood on the walls, funky jam-jar downlights and a full house by 7pm.
Other diners include families, couples, a gaggle of women and a single chap.
There is no kids' menu (in my eyes a Very Good Thing), though they're allowed to order smaller portions for smaller prices. When we say we're into sharing, we're directed to the "Contorni". One antipasti board, a plant pot full of polenta fries, a bowl of pecorino potato skins and a garlic flatbread later and we're already feeling satisfied.
The platter is beautifully presented, including lemony zucchini, sweet capsicum and proper tasty parma ham. And if I was in charge of the world, I would make a law that everyone who goes to Wanaka must sample Francesca's polenta fries washed down with a glass of house-made lemon, lime and bitters. Or perhaps a Chianti.
Onto our mains. We share again. Ragu bolognese and salmone pizza top the list. Vegetarians are well catered for here and you can easily go gluten free with the still-crispy bases. Tonight we choose pizza maker Nick's pizza of the week. It has rosemary, potato, taleggio and bits of something meaty.We also order casareccia carbonara with braised ham hock, chestnut mushrooms and pecorino, following my other boss-of-the- world law: always try something new you wouldn't/couldn't cook at home. It is meltingly delicious. The pasta must have been made with love - and the sauce, the sauce! Among the soft braised hocks are flecks of crackling. Add the earthiness of the mushrooms and boom: a winner with us all.
Portions are goodly generous and we're offered take-home bags for the leftovers. Dessert lures us in anyway, with the man of the house claiming he could eat it all. So he gets tiramisu, made with house-made mascarpone, and we have extra spoons.
The young woman waiting on us is happy to oblige this and all our requests. She combines professionalism and friendliness as seamlessly as the restaurant combines looks and taste.
Tea and coffee comes with wafer-thin biscotti and a general feeling of do-we-really-have-to- leave? We've been lingering and yet not waiting too long for food to be brought or cleared. We feel almost at home here.
NEED TO KNOW
Francesca's Italian Kitchen at 93 Ardmore Street, Wanaka.
Open: Every day, noon-3pm for lunch, 5pm-late for dinner.
Cost: Snacks, salads and starters $5-$25, Pizza, Pasta and Mains $20-$25, Desserts $10-$16
Upside: authentic, affordable food in a relaxed setting
Downside: it gets busy so no guarantee of dining without a reservation