Place: A hotel restaurant located in the aptly opulent concourse of SKYCITY's luxury hotel, The Grand. If the words 'hotel' and 'restaurant' together signify 'sterile' and 'generic' in your mind, think again. The kind of rustic, authentic Italian food served at Gusto would be equally at home at a gas and candle-lit restaurant in the Umbrian Hills.
People: Gusto is one of four restaurants owned and overseen by well-respected chef Sean Connolly. The luxury of being at the head of such an empire is he's able to wear more than one hat - he's a New York-style oyster bar owner in Adelaide and the king of steaks at Gusto neighbour The Grill. He describes himself simply as a 'purveyor of damn fine food', which spoken in his soft west Yorkshire accent conveys a genuine sincerity, not just a glossy tagline.
Sean is about as unjaded as you can get for a chef of his experience - he gets visibly excited when he talks about food, is in constant communication with other chefs through Instagram and uses his spare time to take food pilgrimages across the globe.
On the menu: If there’s any secret to Italian cooking, it’s that less is more. At Gusto you won't be served any vapours, foams or drizzles, but you will get to know some of the country’s best produce – from local Curious Croppers tomatoes to luscious Wairau Valley mozzarella.
The menu is uncomplicated and season-driven, which are adjectives that are so prolific they're sometimes hard to take seriously, but they encapsulate the menu nonetheless. Think fresh housemade ricotta drizzled in honey, rich, savoury mushrooms with silky pillows of gnocchi and meltingly tender veal osso buco on creamy polenta. For dessert, we recommend the Rum Baba, a light sponge generously doused in rum and presented with a side bowl of ricotta. It's a dish worthy of indulgent abandon.
We were lucky enough to be seated in the kitchen at the chef's table. We suspected this was a one-off because we were eating with Sean, but no - the experience is open to anyone who wants it (and gets there first). From here you can watch as all manner of pastas, breads and cheeses are made from scratch. If Sean's in residence, he'll take time to come and talk to you while you eat too.
Decor: There's no disguising the fact this is a restaurant located in the atrium of a hotel, but after adjusting to the fact there's no street view, the first mouthful of honeyed ricotta means you suddenly don't care anyway. Marble tabletops, dark wooden furniture and decorative greenery provide a fitting and neutral background for rustic plates of food.
Go tomorrow: For an early morning breakfast of baked eggs and pancetta, a European-style long lunch with matching Italian wine and for unintended feasts at dinner time.
Address: SKYCITY Grand Hotel, 90 Federal Street, Auckland
Open: Breakfast: Mon-Fri, 6.30am-10.30am, Sat + Sun, 6.30am-11.00am. Lunch: Daily 12pm-2.30pm. Dinner: 5pm-late