Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Nina Kuna
When I heard about Sale Pepe and Pi Artisan Pizza opening in Lahaina just a short walk from one another, I wondered, “Are they crazy?” No fewer than six Italian restaurants opened on Maui in 2014, joining such longtime favorites as Ferraro’s, Casanova, Longhi’s and Capische? Well, after a few meals at each location, I realized you can’t have too many good Italian restaurants on Maui.
SALE PEPE PIZZERIA E CUCINA opened only last May, but it is built on tradition. Chef/owner Michele Bari and wife Qiana have been singing “O Sole Mio” ever since they moved from her native New York to Lahaina’s food scene. Michele hails from Milan, in the north of Italy, and as quickly as recipes from his madre and nonna started churning out of the tiny kitchen, foodie gossip heated up the coconut wireless, spreading like melted mozzarella.
A tiny bar separates the bustling kitchen from the cozy warmth of the dining room, and provides a lofty perch from which to sip an appetite-inducing negroni — a classic citrus-spiked aperitif of gin, herbaceous Campari, and sweet vermouth. The bite of the bitter Campari transports me to a little neighborhood bar off a cobblestoned street in Florence, where I spent a few afternoons whiling away the time between visiting Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia and hiking to the top of Giotto’s Neo-Gothic Campanile. Chef’s assorted crostini brings me back; the crusty, homemade Italian bread supports three topping selections: sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes tossed with balsamic vinegar from Modena, sea salt, and jade-green extra virgin olive oil; generous ribbons of salty prosciutto draped like delicate pink chiffon; and my favorite, chicken liver pate with a hint of smoke, and rich mushroom flavors that blend with pecorino.
A thin-crusted pizza, fragrant with yeast dough that’s fermented seventy-two hours, mozzarella, pizza sauce and herbs, arrives at my table. I close my eyes, breathe in deeply, and suddenly I am in a little cafe on the Piazza San Marco. A graduate of the centuries-old Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli (International School of Pizza) in Venezia, Chef Michele has an understanding of the holy trinity of flour, olive oil and tomatoes that is evident in every bite. A light smokiness imparted by the wood fire dances with the pizza sauce on my tongue; prepared with San Marzano tomatoes, the sauce has the perfect balance of tart, sweet and acid. When I ask Qiana how long the sauce may cook for, she replies, “When Michele tastes it, he knows. He cooks by taste, not by time — the true Italian way.”
My friends Galen and Flo have eaten at Sale Pepe dozens of times, and although Galen tells himself that he should try something new, “The strozzapreti always wins. It’s just perfect.” Made in-house with imported semolina flour, the strozzapreti pasta is cooked al dente and topped with kale salsiccia, a saute of fennel-laced garlic sausage and julienned curly green kale from Maui’s rich volcanic soil. Qiana says, “It is our most popular dish. Although we change things up with specials all the time, that dish will always remain on the menu.” Chef prepares the marinara for pasta dishes separately from the pizza sauce; the lighter preparation allows for a sauce that delicately coats the pasta, so as not to hide the flavor of the semolina.
When I ask Michele about the creamy texture of his eggplant Parmesan, he smiles and says, “The recipe is my mother’s, but it probably came from my mother’s mother . . . then, my mother’s mother’s mother. . . .” You may order the tender meatballs — called polpette in Italian — as an appetizer, as a topping for homemade spaghetti, or, Qiana says, “Guests love it as a topping for pizza.”
A gluten-free option, Sale Pepe’s risotto is made with Arborio, an Italian short-grain rice that the slow addition of just the right amount of broth transforms into tender, plump grains. Michele and Qiana emphasize seasonal ingredients; depending on the time of year, your risotto might feature saffron lobster or kabocha pumpkin. One memorable risotto dish, made with fresh Maui asparagus, left me swooning with delight as salty accents of spiced pancetta and a flurry of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano melded together in every bite.
Desserts are created at the whim of the chef and change regularly. Order the classically prepared tiramisu and pray that tonight the (habit-forming) crunchy cannoli comes stuffed with rum-spiked ricotta.
If you can’t go to Italy, eat here. Mangiare insieme! Let’s eat together!
878 Front St., Lahaina | 667-7667 | SalePepeMaui.com
Relaxing on the patio at PI ARTISAN PIZZERIA as I wait for my order, I indulge in the time-honored Lahaina activity of people-watching. The street scene bustles: young, bikini-clad mothers with kids in tow; tourists posing on the stone wall, taking selfies; Rasta dudes flashing by on high-tech skateboards. The ocean backdrop looks as placid as a lake as a yacht cruises by with masts in full sail, and parasailing visitors float in the sky. Behind me, street-style artwork by Lahaina-born tattoo artist Desmond Kaleolani Alexander paints an equally lively scene as it boldly announces Pi Artisan Pizzeria — “modern cucina e pizzeria!”
David Hanley is president and CEO of HI Food Group, a company that designs and develops restaurants. When I ask Hanley about the concept behind Pi Artisan Pizzeria, he says, “As opposed to building a menu, then sourcing products, Pi’s menu was designed around the product on Maui, working directly with the farmer.” Add fresh, house-made, milky-rich mozzarella for topping pizza and salads, and you get the flavors of Maui and Italy, combined.
Okay, I have to admit that since my first visit to Pi, I have become addicted to their pizza sauce, made with fresh San Marzano tomatoes grown in Lahaina. This taste treat surfaces rarely in Hawai‘i; try it on the fork-tender, house-made Italian sausage wrapped in kiawe-smoked bacon. Pi sources its pork from Olowalu Pig Farm. I couldn’t decide what I liked more: the fennel-flecked sausage, the bacon, or the sauce. Together, they became umami-sublimeness to the nth degree. The garlic bread is a must-have to sop up the rich sauce and juices at the bottom of the dish.
The heart of the restaurant is the kitchen, where manager Mitch Respicio presides. She oversees the build-your-own-pizza bar, which offers no fewer than a dozen toppings. Mitch personally fires the pies in a huge kiawe-wood-burning oven that hovers at 800 degrees. Just three minutes is the norm for a perfect blond-caramel-crusted pizza.
Porchetta, a classic Italian dish, is a roulade of pork stuffed with herbs and garlic and slow roasted to succulence. As a pizza topping with a piquant, caper-laced salsa verde drizzled over the smoky meat, this goes into my food memory bank as a winner. A surprisingly modern twist is Pi’s popular spicy ‘ahi tataki pizza, marrying wild arugula and buffalo mozzarella with a sweet-tart balsamic glaze.
Since my visit, I’ve dreamt about the Chop Chop Salad, full of fresh spinach, spicy greens, oven-roasted tomatoes and pecorino, tossed with Pi’s perfectly balanced house vinaigrette. The icy Blue Lavender Fizz, made with Maui lemons, lavender syrup, and blueberry vodka, is a bright and breezy pairing with the food, or enjoy one of the seven Kona Brewing Company beers on tap. Delicious!
900 Front St., Lahaina | 667-0791 | pi808.com