Lucky for us it was a Thursday. 

As lovely and historic as Arrowtown is, it is essentially a ghost town come Monday and Tuesdays. 

Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of tourists around, particularly during the summer months. But apart from the pharmacy, a Night 'n Day grocery and the bakery, nothing is open. 

That’s because of the crying lack of hospo workers, who are like hen’s teeth. Or actually, these days, free-range eggs at any supermarket.

A week earlier, also on a Thursday, I literally saw someone standing at the bar at Bendix Stables whisper that he had once worked as a bartender. He was hired on the spot. 

Canadian cousins

But this Thursday, we were headed to Little Aosta, which was marking its first year of business under celebrity chef Ben Bayly. The restaurant is a sibling of next door’s fancier Aosta. 

I had Canadian visitors who needed to be fed anyway. These were my cousins, both of whom had been jetboating, zip-lining and generally being proper high-value tourists. The kind our tourism minister covets. They’d worked up a thirst and an appetite.
The plan was to have a drink at the famous Blue Door, conveniently situated just across the alleyway. Sadly, it was closed. Guess why.

But it was no drama. A table at Little Aosta had opened up prior to our booking. 

I was immediately hit by the huge difference between this place and Ahi, Bayly’s fast-paced culinary pressure cooker at Auckland’s Commercial Bay. Night and day.

The inspiration for the place dates back to Bayly’s time in Italy’s Valle D’Aosta, which instilled in him a love of Italian cooking and of "famiglia" – the traditional family meal. Central Otago also shares similar latitude, elevation, climate and local produce.

The five local partners in the venture are Bayly, Flying Trestles owner Dave Arnold, Blue Door co-owner Nicholas Piper, local businesswoman Vicki Onions and Michael Hill, who presumably saunters over occasionally from rounds at his nearby The Hills golf course.

Bayly retains an active involvement, and tries to visit town at least once a month, but the daily five-day-a-week operational stuff falls to executive chef Steve Sepsy, who is also in charge of Aosta.

The result is a very relaxed, unpretentious Italian trattoria that caters as much to locals as tourists – though the latter tend to far outnumber locals, with the equivalent of half of the village’s total population trotting along its main street daily. 

Best in town: Wood-fired sourdough pizzettas. (Image: Madeline Melville)  

The two men at our table ordered Peroni on tap, which arrived quickly and in chilled glasses. Tick, tick. 

But we didn’t completely ignore the spritz menu either, which featured a negroni sbagliato (wonderful mistake) and "italicus", the Italian version of a margarita. 

In the event, my cousin once removed ordered an Il classico, a traditional Aperol and prosecco. She’d been essentially living on these during her trip through the South Island, but this one was a step above, apparently. Another tick.

Delicious vino

To stop the stomach rumblings, we ordered the wood-fired olives and a piadina flatbread – essentially garlic and evo and some wood-fired olives. 

That was washed down with a rather delicious Valpolicella Allegrini 2020, which we ordered in a 375ml carafe at $55. The wine list, to be fair, isn't huge, so we promptly ordered another carafe for our mains.

As Little Aosta has earned a reputation for its sourdough pizzettas cooked in the wood-fired pizza oven, we ordered a "remarkable fungi" (oyster mushroom and truffle oil) and a "prosciutto" (parma ham and Italian parsley), both at $26. The fire-smoked Wakanui brisket meatballs, with blistered tomato and sage, came in at $33.

Not for the faint-hearted

As for dolci, the three of us shared both a Nutella tiramisu and a panna cotta, with Tongan vanilla. I can recommend the latter. That was washed down with an espresso and for me, a small Nardini riserva grappa, which is not for the faint hearted.

The trattoria is open from 5pm Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months for walk-ins, though bookings are definitely required for five or more guests. 

During the winter months, the restaurant will be open from 3pm for après ski outside by the open fire. 

The skis are optional, but heading there on a Thursday has worked for me.

Little Aosta
18 Buckingham St, Arrowtown
Phone: 029-0200-8087