How Popina Fuses Classic Southern & Italian Dishes
When owner Bill Duval and executive chef Reza Azeri opened Baci Bistro in 1997, their goal was to create an intimate restaurant with an Old World ambiance. "On any given night, we’ll personally know more than half the people here," says Duval, a testament to Baci’s roots in the neighborhood. The menu is as distinctive, and features dishes like Baci’s signature rigatoni con salsiccia with Italian sausage and basil in a garlic red sauce; gnocchi with gorgonzola, garlic, and fresh tomatoes; and grilled pork chops with roasted peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Save room for dessert with Baci’s popular tiramisu, crème brûlée, puff pastries, and cheesecake made with mascarpone cheese and white chocolate.
When George "Cass" Castagnola opened Castagnola’s in Manoa Marketplace in 1982, the Italian restaurant became an instant hit for visitors, locals, and even celebrities. "Frank Sinatra had him ship meatballs to California," says George Castagnola Jr., who counted Don Ho and Tom Selleck as frequent visitors to Castagnola’s. This was a restaurant where President Richard Nixon was once refused a reservation because the arrangement would cause an inconvenience for Castagnola’s regular customers, who came first. Castagnola’s closed in the early 1990s, but Billy Rattanasamay, who worked in the restaurant, opened Paesano in its place.
Paesano’s menu is nearly identical to that of fellow restaurant Assaggio’s (both Rattanasamay and Assaggio’s owner, Thomas Ky, were pupils of Castagnola), which means authentic Southern Italian cuisine and a dining experience perfect for business lunches, date nights, or gatherings with friends. And for the look of the restaurant and the quality of the food, one imagines that Paesano could get away with charging a lot more for a lot less, but just like Castagnola’s before it, taking care of the customer comes first.
Chef Sergio Mitrotti, a former scuba diver, sailor, graphic artist, and Beverly Hills boutique clothing store owner, boasts two impressive talents: cooking delicious Northern Italian-style cuisine, and painting epic floor-to-ceiling frescoes recreating famous scenes from the Sistine Chapel in Rome. You can enjoy both at Cafe Sistina. Northern Italy is cattle country, and the cuisine available here reflects the offerings of the land: fresh herbs, garlic, and mushrooms grace cuts of beef and veal, as well as hard sausages. Mitrotti, who grew up in the northern city of Turin, creates memorable dishes, such as spicy lamb sausage with forest mushrooms over polenta; wide ribbon pappardelle pasta sauteed with sage and butter, and topped with a venison ragu; fresh carpaccio served with an original Venetian sauce and shaved imported Parmesan; and house-made gnocchi with wild boar sausage in a barolo wine sauce.
In Southern Sicily, the seaside village of Taormina looks out over sunny beaches, a mere 45 minutes from Mount Etna, Europe’s biggest active volcano. In Hawaii, Taormina the restaurant is not much different -- a stylish and chic destination with an outdoor space that overlooks warm Waikiki Beach, just an island away from active Kilauea. The flavors, too, are equally spot-on. Enjoy the truffle carbonara, a fresh fettuccine served with mixed mushrooms, pancetta finished with a poached egg, and shaved seasonal truffles; risotto with porcini, mixed mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese, and topped with sauteed foie gras and balsamic reduction; and pesci misti, with grilled salmon, shrimp scampi, scallop, squid, clams, fresh catch of the day, and mushrooms with an oregano dressing.
With a new location in the former Wine Stop, a charming little pink house just off Hauoli St in Moiliili, Mediterraneo offers casual, trattoria-style dishes in a quaint, cozy atmosphere. Chef Fabrizio Favale, originally from Rome, prepares a variety of specialties such as strangolapreti made with sausage prepared in-house; black squid ink tagliolini neri with calamari and Maine lobster; and a popular piccata, served with either veal or chicken breast. This reasonably priced hole-in-the-wall is perfect for intimate dinners.
Bernini prepares haute Italian cuisine -- contemporary, but still authentic -- in an elegant environment. Guided by a mission to "draw out the natural and best tasting flavors" from his ingredients, chef Kengo Matsumoto trained professionally in Northern Italy before opening Italian restaurants across Tokyo, and now Hawaii. Selections include innovative dishes like fresh sea urchin spaghetti, as well as robust classics, like a slow-roasted pork porchetta. Other favorites include king crab atop a tomato cream sauce linguini; penne with an oregano tomato sauce served with swordfish; and Roma-style Norcia pizza with mozzarella, mushrooms, Italian sausage, walnut, and truffle oil. Matsumoto balances bold Italian flavors with an attention to detail typical of Japanese kitchens.
Sabrina's is a husband-and-wife operation, serving fresh pastas and Italian dishes in a tiny spot in Kaimuki. Signs on the tables warn of a longer-than-usual possible wait time due to the diligence and care they put into preparing each dish (and because it’s likely just the two of them working), calling their dining experience "slow food." But the food is worth the wait: dishes like seafood risotto with fresh clams, mussels, tiger shrimp, scallops, and calamari; spiedini di carne skewers with grilled chicken breast, beef, pork, and sausage marinated in white wine with potatoes and vegetables; and house-made agnolotti, ravioli, and gnocchi are all knockouts. Plus, it’s BYOB.
World-class Italian cuisine meets local Hawaii flavors at Sarento’s at the Top of the Ilikai Hotel, with entrees such as a mozzarella and polenta-crusted double pork chop served with Hamakua mushroom sauce and goat cheese basil mash potatoes; osso buco potstickers with gremolata and orange saffron vinaigrette; ahi bruschetta with ciabatta crostini, Kalamata pesto, avocado, and Kamuela tomato; and grilled local seafood sausage served with lilikoi mustard. Enjoy a glass of wine from an extensive wine list while a live pianist plays jazz in this chic dining room high above Honolulu -- the panoramic views from Diamond Head to Downtown are among the best in the city.
Although the emphasis in this spot is the eponymous wine -- of which there is an impressive selection featuring nearly 90 vintages, including 30 wines available by the glass or in 2oz tastes), Formaggio, located in the belly of Market City, offers an equally worthwhile Italian and Mediterranean menu. Dishes here are perfect for sharing, with a selection of lighter fare such as pizzas, sandwiches, and salads, making it kind of a perfect date spot. The pizza primavera is top-notch, and comes topped with portobello mushrooms, eggplant, roasted peppers, zucchini, onions, and goat cheese. The prosciutto di parma sandwich, with dry-cured prosciutto, sweet basil pesto, mozzarella cheese, and fresh tomatoes is also excellent, and classics like smoked salmon carpaccio and escargot bleu really pop.
Waikiki (& Kahala)
Voted the best Italian restaurant in Hawaii by the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Arancino offers Napoli-style cuisine prepared with pastas, meats, and cheese imported straight from Italy. Combine that with its penchant for locally sourced seafood and produce, and you’ve got the best of both worlds. With two locations in Waikiki and one at the Kahala Hotel, Arancino is a destination for both locals and tourists. Menu highlights include spaghetti served with calamari and flying fish roe in garlic and olive oil; pizza capricciosa, topped with mushrooms, eggs, bell peppers, imported Italian prosciutto crudo, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheese with a poached egg; risotto di funghi, featuring five different mushrooms in cream sauce; and linguine ai gamberetti, served with black tiger shrimp and arugula in a homemade tomato sauce.
Named one of "America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences" by Food & Wine in 2006, Vino is still going strong a decade later, with an unmatched wine selection and a strong assortment of incredible Italian dishes. Enjoy hauula tomatoes served with crispy chicharron, Maui onions, pine nuts, and calamansi in a lemon vinaigrette; house-made three-cheese gnocchi served with jumbo lump crab, roasted alii mushrooms, pea shoots, cauliflower, and kabocha pumpkin puree in a sage brown butter sauce; Dungeness crab with jalapeño, basil, fresh corn, and lobster and uni buerre blanc atop hand-cut fresh linguine. Master sommelier Chuck Furuya and local restaurateur D.K. Kodama designed Vino in the style of a traditional Italian enoteca, offering a relaxed atmosphere for friends to gather, converse, and share a glass of good wine and delicious tapas.
Hawaii Kai (& other locations)
With more than six locations across Oahu, Assaggio’s is the go-to favorite for Italian cuisine, serving up generous portions of delicious Southern Italian cuisine at reasonable prices. The menu is extensive and reads like a glossary of Italian dishes and styles: arrabiata, bolla, casino, francese, marsala, olio, piccata, puttanesca, scampi -- it’s all here, in dishes with chicken, veal, steak, fresh seafood, and vegetarian.
Try the Sicilian chicken, pan-fried in olive oil and garlic, and served with roasted potatoes, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms in a white wine sauce; hot antipasto clams, mussels, calamari, and shrimp served in a house-made garlic, paprika, and spicy cayenne white wine butter sauce; breaded veal saltimbocca romana, topped with melted mozzarella cheese, spinach, and prosciutto ham; or even the classic Caesar salad, prepared tableside with simple ingredients.
All the pastas are prepared fresh daily in-house at this snug eatery in Kakaako. The restaurant is small, so reservations are required, and there’s only one chef in the kitchen: Don Truong, formerly of Mediterraneo, who prepares rustic, crowd-pleasing meals such as mushroom bruschetta, osso buco, house-made sausage, and black lobster ravioli in a saffron cream sauce. Arrive early, before seats fill up and dishes sell out -- especially the desserts. Chef Truong is a master dessert chef as well, offering decadent and unforgettable crème brûlée cheesecake and tiramisu prepared right at the restaurant.