Greatest NZ stories: Hydro projects generated fine Italian cuisine

As part of the Herald's 150th birthday commemorations, reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series. Day 12: Tokoroa

Leandro D'Andrea is in the kitchen putting together the best Italian food in Tokoroa.

Best in Tokoroa? Talk to diners in Alberico's Italian Restaurant and they'll tell you there's no better to be found in Waikato. Or north of Taupo. Or anywhere.

And it all began in the middle of nowhere, which seems a fair description of the hydro camp 30 minutes' drive into the hills outside Waiouru.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the camps became home to many Italians hired to work on the great New Zealand hydro projects of the time.

Some stayed - Alberico D'Andrea was one of those. He fell in love, made a family then a business and eventually a life.

When the Herald came to Tokoroa, Alberico was being forced out of the kitchen with poor health.

It's a struggle, as it would be in any family. His wife, Rachel, 60, is shuttling back and forth between Waikato Hospital and the town they made their home.

Leandro, 34, came back from the United Kingdom and took his father's place in the kitchen. "This is the longest I've spent in this town since I was 10 years old," he says. He remembers being a boy in this kitchen, laid down to rest on the chest freezer with a blanket when it got late and he grew tired.

Now he cooks. It's a long time since he was a boy but the recipes are the same - native Italy by way of the hydro camps where his parents built their married lives.

Together, between cooking and customers, Rachel and Leandro tell how the food came to the table.

Alberico D'Andrea grew up in northern Italy and went to work aged 10. It was common, says Leandro, for working class families in Northern Italy to send their children away to work. As he approached manhood it became time for compulsory military training, which also meant the withdrawal of his wage from the family resulting in financial pressure.

Instead, they found him work as a kitchen hand in faraway New Zealand. Alberico's father was already there. He had worked abroad - all over the world - before fetching up Downunder, on the hydro project for two years. Alberico, like Leandro, had learned to cook at home. "When his mum came to visit in New Zealand, they would have a competition about whose minestrone was the best," says Rachel.

In 1969, young Alberico was farewelled at the airport by doting family. Intercontinental flights were so new, they worried he would freeze. They piled him on with jumper over jumper and jacket. After takeoff, he sweated his way to New Zealand.

The first camp was at the National Park end of the hydro projects. They stopped for a meal on the way, which Alberico left behind. "He got a lot of meals like that," says Leandro. Once, Alberico told his son, he hid a meal under a pot plant to avoid causing offence.

They went to work in the bush, a long way from anywhere. When they got free, says Leandro, with a smile at his mother, "they went to find young, liberal women".

At the time, Rachel was at the University of Waikato, living in a hostel with a friend who was seeing one of the Italian workers. Leandro: "Pa tells the story of how he walks down the hall [at the hostel] and sees you in your room and walks into the next room and asks 'who's that?'."

Rachel rolls her eyes: "I've only heard that story in recent years."

That was Anzac Day in 1971. Rachel never wanted to get married until she'd travelled, but they did in 1974.

On the way to marriage, there was food. "The first time I told him to stop taking me out and I'd cook for him, I cooked paprika chicken. I didn't have any paprika. I thought 'cayenne? That'd be the same'. We had to wash it."

Why Alberico? She smiles. "I don't know if I've ever put my finger on it." Was he a handsome young man, I ask? The smile grows. "Not that," she says. "He was persistent."

They got married and it was off, deep into the wilderness to the hydro projects where Alberico cooked for Italian appetites built while carving tunnels through mountains, building an electricity generation system that still powers New Zealand.

They lived halfway along the Desert Rd, about half-an-hour from Waiouru, at Moawhango. It's underwater, now. Rachel recalls it as "a desolate place".

"It was like the company got a machine in, chopped the top off the hill and put some houses on it."

They all followed the same formula, those settlements. The roads were bulldozed to the hilltop, cul de sacs carved for the houses, which were lined up in the clay, gravel and mud.

There were a handful of New Zealand wives, of which Rachel was one, who moved into the one-bedroom houses and did what they could to turn them into homes. Picket fences went up and, as Rachel recalls, the few women teased gardens out of the soil. Snow transformed the settlement in a way the gardens couldn't - in winter it was beautiful.

But so bleak. It just wasn't a place for families. "I always said I would never have children while living in a camp." The first Christmas living at the camp, Rachel remembers the company putting on a minibus to go to "town". "On the way to Turangi it snowed. In December." It's a measure of the desolate nature that when Rachel sought contact with the outside world, she turned to Waiouru, doing administrative work for the army.

Most of the foreign workers hadn't brought their families and lived in the barracks. "That's why the kitchen was such an important part of their lives. It was food from home."

The love affair with Alberico brought her into the love affair he and others at the camp had for the food they cooked. Alberico worked long hours in the kitchen. When he wasn't working, he taught Rachel to cook. She came to the marriage with a copy of Good Housekeeping, the staple for every young Kiwi bride of a generation. It wasn't enough for a young bride in a hydro camp filled with Italians.

Meanwhile, Alberico expanded lessons from his mother by learning from the kitchen's chef, Luciano, said to have worked at the famous Hotel Cipriani in Venice. He went on to set up El Burcio in Turangi, turning out world-class Italian food for the small lakeside town before returning to Italy. Another pair ran Valentino's restaurant in Turangi, before striking out for Blenheim, where they set up Rocco's. She remembers the other Italians heading off to the South Island to help build the restaurant.

The men who came out from Italy did so to build a better life back home. Like Luciano, Alberico's father went home, as did most. But some stayed. For Alberico, there were four other camps before work on the hydro scheme finished in 1982. By then, he had moved from the kitchen to the workshop. "They were very long days," says Rachel.

The couple had planned their future, buying a building in Edgecumbe, where Rachel's parents lived, for a restaurant. When the building turned out to have the wrong zoning, Edgecumbe turned into Tokoroa, where Rachel used to stop on her way to visit Alberico before they were married. They spent 14 years running a restaurant out of a rented building in the centre of town, then returned from a visit to Italy determined to have their own place.

Alberico's Italian Restaurant sits on a corner to the north of the town centre. Rachel, really Mrs D'Andrea, has been known for years in Tokoroa as Mrs Alberico.

Alberico, was absent this miserable spring evening when Rachel told her story. He's in hospital in Hamilton as the tail end of a cyclone whacks Tokoroa around before bludgeoning its way up country. When the door swings open, it is to diners escaping the weather outside for an Italian summer shining warmly from murals around the walls. If you look closely, you can see a young Alberico and Rachel, copied from their wedding photographs, peering out among the faces in the mural.

Leandro rattles a pan across the stove. Customers chat over wine. "He loves the kitchen so much and he loves working so much," says Leandro of his father. Alberico returned from an earlier hospital stay and threw himself back into the restaurant but wound up back in hospital.

Rachel says: "He started work so early. He was 10. When he worked for the company on the hydro project, they didn't have cranes. They used young men to do the lifting.

"It's to be expected his body would give out a little earlier."

This week, he was back in Tokoroa. Rachel was thrilled - "he's so much better" - that he was off to the golf course.

But not the kitchen. No, she says, he'll have to build up to that. Your story

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