A Wellington institution is rebranded as an Italian espresso bar and eatery.


After 25 years as the capital’s unofficial morning coffee vendors to parliamentarians, public servants and the judiciary, Astoria has received a facelift. New owners Yu Group commissioned Allistar Cox to design a cathedral-like maze of hung beams that serve as bottle storage above a massive new central bar. The kitchen has been refitted to pump out the 450 covers – breakfast, coffee and cakes – that Astoria expects to serve between 7am and 11.30am. Tables are typically turned over three times during lunch. After 2pm Astoria turns into a wine bar for the corporate crowd, and at 5pm the dinner menu begins. It sounds exhausting, but as general manager Stephen Morris points out, “We signed up for the name, so we’ve got to provide the service.”


Certainly, Italian staple foods drive the menu here which, given the volume of customers, is necessarily simplistic. However, Astoria is far removed from an old-school pizza-pasta house. The crayfish bisque for the house-extruded bucatini, for example, contains the usual crayfish-head stock along with white wine and butter, but additionally offers genius touches: persimmon juice for sweetness, grapefruit juice for sourness, Campari for its slight bitterness and, James Pask’s own trade secret, pectin to thicken the stock before it over- reduces. Kingfish crudo with preserved lemon and pinenut may sound simple, but is in fact reinforced with a full-on salsa verde – shallots, capers, anchovy, olive oil and a heap of fresh herbs.


James Pask writes the menu here, just as he does for the Yu Group’s celebrated sister restaurants, Atlas and Cinderella. Setting Astoria in its new Italian direction was an easy decision, since this is how James enjoys cooking at home. While he frequently oversees Astoria’s pizza ovens by night, the details of kitchen organisation are left to Isaac Chamberlain, who is executive chef across both Atlas and Astoria.


Buzzing with charm, ready wit and a degree in old Norse poetry, Stephen Morris doubles as Astoria’s chief meeter and greeter. He was head-hunted on the basis of being well known to Astoria’s target market, having been previously associated with other restaurants in the vicinity, notably his own late, lamented Copita.


Obviously many ingredients must be imported from Italy, including the prosciutto for the charcuterie platter, which is all the more aromatic for being freshly sliced to order. Spray-bottled over each potato pizzetta at the very last minute is colatura, a revival of ancient Rome’s garum or liquamen. Amber coloured and rich in umami, it looks like Asian fish sauce yet smells quite different, having a sweet anchovy character.

That said, Astoria works alongside a great many New Zealand independent farms and artisan producers: the olive oil comes from Nelson and the Wairarapa, the black truffles from Canterbury, the wagyu rump from First Light, the mozzarella from Nelson’s ViaVio, the ricotta from Wellington’s Zany Zeus. Barrys Bay Aged Cheddar replaces provolone in the cacio e pepe. Most impressively, the durum wheat flour for the sourdough and pizzetta is produced in the Wairarapa. “It made no sense to import Italian durum flour when we can source it from 60 kilometres away,” says Isaac Chamberlain.

ADDRESS:  159 Lambton Quay, Wellington
Check website for opening hours
DINNER MAINS:   $15-$45
CONTACT:  04 473 8500