I walk past a familiar storefront in Kailua and imagine what the walls would say if they could talk: I seem to hear, “Free…We are free at last” in an elated, tear-laden whisper. I peek inside the window–situated between Foodland and Baskin-Robbins–now home to the brand-new Italian restaurant Prima and see sleek décor with a modern, minimalist appeal. The building appears to finally be free from the underwhelming eatery curse.
I sympathize with these walls: I worked at the ill-fated location four years ago, back when it was Mama’s Island Pizza. Gone are the days when you’d receive a cornmeal-caked pizza that, if not eaten right away, would form a suspicious filmy layer over the cheese. Now, at Prima (God bless them), you can expect gourmet pizza such as the provola, which mingles the well-balanced flavors of freshly marinated cherry tomatoes, provolone, roasted garlic and ricotta.
The menu features seven of these 12-inch pizzas ($13–$15). But, for me, the margherita pizza ($14) was the entrée to be reckoned with–I couldn’t resist reordering it on my second visit, even though I wanted to try something new. The thin crust avoids being too crispy, yet resists becoming too soggy and turning into an awkward fork and knife kind of job. (These pies of perfection might be attributed to the $20,000 white-tiled oven brought over from Naples, Italy.) Pizza toppings, such as basil, white anchovies and arugula, are impressively fresh and flavorful.
Although the pizza alone is reason enough to dine here, the menu is too inventive and playful to not experiment with other dishes (but fair warning: if you’re not a sworn devotee of Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis, then some of the menu phrasing may seem unfamiliar). With entrees that range from $8–$23 (excluding the more expensive striploin steak, $27), the menu offers a fine-dining exhibition accessible to everyone. And feel free to enjoy your Italian feast at home, as Prima also offers pizza for take-out.
The mahi mahi ($21), presented with smoked paprika carrot puree, carrot mostarda and a nice touch of fingerling potato, was cooked perfectly and was beyond satisfying–the smooth carrot puree lends a surprising texture and flavor, making you want to carefully shape each bite. The only dish I wasn’t particularly giddy over was the veal sweet breads picatta ($19), which sat atop braised lettuce and was garnished with capers, lemon and parsley. Although the meat was tender and moist, I couldn’t get past the overwhelming citrus taste that seemed to drown out any other natural flavors. “It’s like…a meat lemon,” my date suggested. Next time I’ll try the pappardelle ($16) instead, a dish with curry bolognese and fried curry leaves, which left the couple next to us swooning.
For dessert, I’d recommend the torrone alla banana ($6), a banana enveloped in a soft milk-chocolate casing with hazelnut and olive oil–and I’ll be damned if it isn’t delicious. Another favorite is the gelato and sorbetto ($6), which is a rich assortment of smooth crèmes that miraculously capture every nuance of their original flavors. Lilikoi, pistachio and Cap’n Crunch are some of the bold flavors selected, depending on the changing tides of chef Alejandro Briceño’s mood.
The servers set a casual and comfortable ambiance with easygoing attentiveness. Our server even lets us know that 90 percent of the food is locally sourced. She explains that the entrees are smaller portions, best experienced when shared family-style because the dishes are served as they are cooked, not all at once.
After experiencing some difficulty in attaining a same-day reservation, I was sure that Prima had already been anointed the new neighborhood favorite. This may be true, but after three embarrassingly-close visits during the first few opening weeks, I realized that the “booked” restaurant looked, at most, 60 percent full. Either they are understaffed, or still working out some minor kinks with their somewhat limited seating. (Prima can seat around 40 people at a given time.) I imagine this underbooking method will be ironed out, given a month or so gestation period.
The tight-knit Prima team, consisting of chefs Alejandro Briceño and Lindsey Ozawa, manager Kawika Kanae, Blaine Tomita and Kanoe Sandefur of V-Lounge and Vertical Junkies, completed most of the reconstruction for Prima’s interior design themselves. Come mid-November, Prima will also expand its service to include lunches and Sundays.
If you miss the now-defunct MELT food truck in Ward, appreciate V-Lounge’s pizza or enjoy dining at Nobu Waikiki, I suggest checking out Prima. The distinguished family of chefs has combined experience in each of these places–and Prima just might be the gifted child.