There was great despair expressed in Wellington last year when news broke that Matterhorn, the Cuba Quarter stalwart famed as much for its bar as its restaurant, was closing its doors for good. Matterhorn, which opened in the late 1990s, had been operating on borrowed time ever since the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake made masonryheavy Cuba St feel a decidedly edgy place to be. But the tears turned to cheers when the new owner – none other than Sean Marshall, the chef who was at the helm when Matterhorn won the Cuisine Restaurant of the Year title in 2008 – revealed that it would rise again on the site of the former Lone Star on Tory St. At Marshall’s new gaff – named Monte Cervino, the Italian moniker for Matterhorn – the menu manifesto claims, ‘This is not so much an Italian restaurant and bar but a New Zealand one whose influences spread back to Italy. New Zealanders are all the sons, daughters and grandchildren of immigrants. We are genuine, generous, honest.’

In real life, this means casual dining with serious intent. The menu is a lengthy paean to the joys of Italianstyle feasting and the drinks list will comfort anyone who misses parking up at the former Matterhorn’s polished bar. It’s easy to imagine popping in for an aperitivo and a platter of cured meats and accidentally staggering out hours later. Everything comes in hugely generous portions – I want to eat just about everything but lack crucial capacity to do so.

Our choices are mostly successful. The burrata dish is a gorgeous autumn sunburst – bitter chicory, perfumed, tender quince and toasted hazelnuts are brilliant foils for the milky and lush cheese. The meatballs are light, almost mousse-y, bathed in a piquant tomato sauce just like your imaginary Nonna used to make. The agnolotti is a stellar dish – tender handmade agnolotti filled with creamy housemade ricotta with slivers of pickled squash and crunchy sage amaretti, plus toasted pumpkin seeds and crispy fried sage leaves. It’s rustic yet elegant, simple yet full of clever contrasts. Somehow I manage to sample the slab of Australian grain-fed sirloin across the table, which is topped with a disc of anchovy butter and accompanied by a pile of chicory. The steak is at the perfect stage of bloodiness and tastes exceptionally – for want of a more descriptive word – beefy. My dining partner despairs at the thought of more chicory after the burrata, but is cheered by the crispy sage potatoes.

At this point, things fall apart a little. The waitstaff are charming and mostly efficient, though obviously run off their feet on this particular night, and knowledge of the wine list is a bit patchy. We wait a long, long time for our plates to be cleared, water glasses are not refilled and it takes a good 20 minutes before they remember to ask if we want dessert or more drinks. Marshall may be working miracles in the kitchen, but the rest of the operation could do with a little polish. The cavernous space still feels a bit Lone Star-esque; the toilets speak to years’ service and I hope to God that those bricks along the north wall aren’t going to crumble in the next great shake. If you’re not blessed with a well-padded bottom the seating doesn’t lend itself to lengthy acquaintance.

These quibbles are mostly forgiven when desserts arrive. We make short work of a giant cannoli bursting with lemon-laced ricotta. I love the silky spiced panna cotta and toasted gingerbread, but its accompanying ginger-poached rhubarb is a little al dente and stringy. Like us, the place is by now bursting at the seams and we decide to make a swift exit to free up a table.

Monte Cervino does exactly what it says on the tin. The food is indeed genuine, generous and honest. If this is the new zeitgeist then I’m all for it.

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