We don’t have a little Italy here, but we do have more than 41 “Italian” restaurants on the island of Oahu. We don’t have an Olive Garden either, but we do have ye Old Spaghetti Factory. Same thing, only bigger lamps.
Most of these restaurants cover their tables in red or white tablecloths and offer dishes that are comfortably familiar. The oldie but goodie “spaghetti and meatballs” often disappoints at many of the local Italian eateries, but every once-in-a-while we stumble into a restaurant that serves rabbit, wild boar and aged parmigiano reggiano with balsamic vinegar crème. If we’re really lucky we find tortino di cavolfiore (cauliflower soufflé) or bresaola e rucola (thinly sliced cured beef with parmigiano) or plates of artisinal pasti in salsa alle noci (walnuts and gorgonzola cheese). And then, there are the artichokes.
Nobel Prize in literature winner Pablo Neruda said it best–“The artichoke, with a tender heart, dressed up like a warrior”…or so began his ode to this sci-fi looking flower, or thistle, or vegetable. Nobody seems to be sure.
Artichokes are one of those foods you either love or hate or just haven’t tried yet. But the truth is, as long as they’re good, most of us don’t care if they’re prepared by chefs who trained in the mountains of Northern Italy or Leavenworth prison. Artichokes are poetry. And when poetry is cooked right, a review is born.
Formaggio Wine Bar
There are few things better than the view of a set table and the smell of dishes like umido con polenta (sautéed porcini with polenta), red meat cooled in Barolo wine sauce or homemade ribollita (minestrone-style soup with vegetables, beans and old bread).
The Formaggio Fonduta–mouth-watering fondue made with imported cheese, spinach, artichoke and crabmeat and served with tiny pieces of crusted bread ($12.99)–is pure naughty indulgence. It’s rich and creamy and fulfills the promise of the restaurant’s name.
Besides the artichoke and crab collaboration, Formaggio offers classic Italian American dishes that rarely disappoints.
The menu is a fusion of what we expect and what we don’t expect. Escargot baked in herbed garlic butter, Roquefort cheese and a puff pastry is a favorite. Maybe it’s the garlic. Maybe it’s the cheese. It’s definitely the Puff.
2919 Kapiolani Blvd., 739-7719
131 Hekili St. (Kailua), [formaggio808.com], 263-2636
Vino Italian Tapas
Located in Restaurant Row, Vino is modeled after the Italian enoteca (wine cellar). This isn’t to say that Vino’s menu is strictly Italian, but this place offers dishes like Waialua asparagus Milanese made with roasted mushrooms, organic egg and shaved parmesan ($17). It doesn’t need truffle oil, but it’s there. As a bonus.
Pumpkin and sweet potato ravioli (with pesto marinated prawns, sliced almonds and sage brown butter, $14) doesn’t sing, “Take me to Italy,” it screams, “lay me down on a plate of pillows stuffed with gnocchi until I die.”
This is a wine bar for those who still believe that foie gras belongs on a plate next to quail eggs and maple syrup. This is a restaurant for those who think fennel sausage and truffles of goat cheese and ricotta are as near to heaven as we’ll get.
Their menu is honest and so good that langoustine pretend not to be lobster.
500 Ala Moana Blvd., [vinohawaii.com], 524-8466
An Italian/Japanese restaurant? Really?
Let’s just say my expectations were far below…low. I just couldn’t see how this restaurant made it past its business plan. But then came to the table a plate of pasta with sea urchin. Not. Kidding. Ricci di mare is one dish that’s a must-have, and at $26, I can guarantee you this is not a joke.
The Pizza Romana ($17) begs another question: What’s the difference between an anchovy and an artichoke? Clearly the menu has a typo, or the chef was playing a joke, or perhaps it’s a new kind of dyslexia, but regardless, this pizza wasn’t a hit. A B-side perhaps.
Bernini is pricey. It’s fine dining with a local twist. The scene is familiar, and if nothing else, go for the Norcia pizza ($21). Sausage, mushrooms, walnuts and truffle oil–a white pizza at its best. It will leave you interested enough to try it again.
1218 Waimanu St., [Berninihonolulu.com], 591-8400
Surprising choice, yes? The thing about Zia’s is the bread. No, it’s the wine (prices). Or maybe it’s the garlic (which is to say, a lot). There are menu choices that are a drag–I get it–but let your eyes move past the pasta to the place where parmesan-crusted fish and risotto meet spinach pesto. This dish is comfort at its most comfortable. The risotto is creamy but not too rich, and the fish is near perfect.
Then there’s the eggplant sorrentino ($15.95). White wine butter and mushroom sauce with melted mozzarella tossed with fresh spinach and served on lightly breaded eggplant over spaghetti. Is it authentically Italian? Nope.
But take my word for it–if you’re not working out and don’t care about whether or not you’ll fit into your jeans a week from now, eat this dish. You’ll thank me (temporarily).
Artichoke hearts find their place among local greens tossed with feta cheese, diced pancetta, soft basil and sun dried tomatoes drizzled in olive oil (Tuscan Salad, $15.95).
Zia’s isn’t everything one looks for in an Italian restaurant, but it’s consistently good if you’re willing to look past the fact that their spaghetti and meatballs is not your mother’s. It’s Zia’s. So try something else.
201 Hamakua Dr. (Kailua) 262-7168
45-620 Kamehameha Hwy. (Kaneohe) [ziascaffe.com], 235-9427
Olive Garden? That. Is. Not. Italian. Food. It may sound Italian, but so does Chlamydia. That’s not any good, either. — Anthony Bourdain