“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore!”…
The sleepy town of Kainaliu (except during peak “crawl” traffic) still reflects old Kona farming community essence with hints of flower-child bohemia as seen through colorful window and door displays. Most of the vintage structures fronting Mamalahoa Highway still accommodate many of traditional vendors from the 1920’s such as Oshima Store, Teshima’s Restaurant, and Kimura’s Fabrics.
A few small cafes, curio shops, boutiques, art galleries and bookstore -with bookclub add allure to this charming town in South Kona.
The centerpiece of Kainaliu is undoubtedly the Aloha Theater complex. Majestic in her period stature, she is a sight to behold with a new coat of paint and interior renovation – almost like a vision of Gloria Swanson gliding in for her close-up. Primarily a venue for Aloha Performing Arts Company (APAC), the Aloha also houses a restaurant, theater snack bar and offices.
When the popular Angel Café vacated Aloha’s adjoining restaurant space, the coconut wireless speculated about who would take over the lease. The buzz intensified with the prospect of a new Italian bistro.
Adorned with rich-hued walls and decor reminiscent of historical Genova , the café in the Aloha Theater building recently opened to a grateful public.
Chef/Owner Giovanni celebrates his ancestral homeland with a compact menu featuring many of Genoa’s culinary offerings such as homemade Focaccia Bread (served with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette),
and freshly made pesto to accompany the handmade pastas. Imagine yourself having the good fortune to be sitting in a seaside cafe on the Ligurian coast, enjoying a large bowl of fresh mussels sauteed in white wine, garlic, fresh herbs and a light tomato sauce over spaghetti. That’s not too far to stretch because we were able to achieve a similar experience at Amici’s. The only thing missing from our lunch table was a chilled bottle of Cinque Terre.
We descended on Chef Giovanni’s establishment with a vengeance (a hungry one!) and after viewing the menu, decided amongst us to share plates so that we could taste each offering, starting with the Caprese Salad ($11).
What else can I say about Big Island tomatoes, organically grown with an abundance of sunlight and possibly a touch of vog for interest? You know what I am talking about – sweet and succulent – just picked flavor that’s indescribable; layered with Chef’s housemade creamy-as-a-cumulus-cloud mozarella, and a chiffonade of basil leaves that were probably harvested minutes before; drizzled with EVOO and earthy balsamic.
I desperately wanted to order the Spaghetti Carbonara ($14.50) however no one else would be able to get a fork tine around my protective arm and the whole concept of ‘sharing’ would go out the window in a heartbeat. Fortunately, someone else with more generosity than I pushed their dish into the fray and I was able to sample a noodle or two coated with egg-yolk enriched creamy parmigiano sauce with clinging pancetta bits. Occasionally I make this dish at home and whenever I see it on a menu, I am immediately induced to order it – probably out of a morbid curiosity and ego play to see who’s version tastes better. Of course, I always convince myself that I am the ‘queen’ of Carbonara (while humming We Are the Champions). Happily, Giovanni’s Carbonara is appropriately rich and full of cheese!
Almost matching the decor and color palette, the Spaghetti with Mussels ($18) featured a flavorful white wine, chopped garlic, fresh herbs and light house tomato sauce. I would gladly eat fresh steamed muscles by themselves, so adding fresh pasta, wine, herbs and tomato is like frosting on a cake. This dish resembled ‘Joseph’s Coat of many colors’ in every way. The muscles did not overpower the subtlety of the other flavors, which kind of creeped up on you like an exceptional glass of wine.
Penne pasta is versatile in the variety of possible accompaniments. The Chef’s Rigatoni Calabrese featured spicy Italian sausage in a hearty red sauce with red bell peppers, capers and of course, garlic ($16). The marinara sauce is made with San Marzano tomatoes – and NOT from tomato paste. This is stated on the menu and so as Charlton Heston memorialized (as Moses) …”so let it be written, so let it be done”. Have you tried San Marzano tomatoes? Light years away from Hunts and other brands in flavor. I have found them at K-Mart (of all places) and Target under the name “Cento”.
The soup du jour was probably Chef’s version of minestrone ($7). I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot remember what the soup contained or even tasted like. This is what happens when you do not make notes, or wait too long to record your observations. Mea culpa. In my defense, I offer a photo which reveals sausage, kale and canellini beans.
Are you wondering what I ordered? Probably not, but you’re going to read about it anyway – Pork Tenderloin Parmigiana ($17). At home, I use pork tenderloins in my Piccata in lieu of veal. Part of the process is pounding to tenderize the steak – and stopping yourself before you pound it to oblivion. The breaded pork in this dish was sauteed properly and served in a zesty red sauce, topped with melted mozzarella and parmigiano.
The pork was tender and full of flavor. Unfortunately, my photo was too blurry to publish. Happily, my husband and I returned for dinner the following week and ran into Cindy and Tom (remember the royals of all things fondue?). I spotted a Pork Parmigiana dish on their table and jammed my trusty Droid into their dining space , much to the dismay of their dinner guests, who I want to apologize to belatedly for my paparazzi-like behavior.
And since I so brazenly intruded into their friendly foursome with my trusty camera-phone, I continued to snap photos of the rest of their dinner: Pollo piccata;
Pollo Marsala, Pork Parmigiana and Rigatoni Calabrese. Fortunately for them, no one ordered the Carbonara – or they’d have an energetic and determined intrusion of my fork tines to deal with!
My husband lured me back to my corner with a glass of wine and a goblet stuffed with freshly made Pistachio Gelato (and strawberry for him)! Remember that movie “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming”? In Kainaliu, it’s “the Italians are Coming…”. While we dined, I heard a rush of the most beautiful romantic language on the planet coming from the table behind me. I thought I overheard that (yet) another Giovanni recently opened a gelato shop in Mango Court, down the street from Aloha Theater. When we got up to leave, we saw both Giovanni’s, and a few others conversing in their native language while dining. Fortunately this is Kona where anything goes – and we enthusiastically praised the meal, gelatto, ambiance, grandchildren, naughty pets, and anything else that came to mind. A woman at their table told us that we had enjoyed just-churned gelato from their store in Mango Court and I made a mental note to turn in on my next journey south.
It’s no wonder that I must have been an Italian mama mia in a past life because I adore the cuisine and have the girth to prove it. Most of the people with any kind of Italian heritage that I know are great cooks because they enjoy food; both preparation and eating - probably because they acquired all the necessary kitchen skills from their doting grandmothers. Hey – I learned how to make a mean corned beef hash from my grandmother! I also shared her grainy perc’d Hills Bros. coffee with loads of sugar and Carnation milk, and almost lost a hand when I tried to pilfer one of her Pall Malls at an early age! That quick response embedded a repulse trigger to cigarettes that has lasted me a lifetime! Grandmothers are wonderful for many reasons!
Traveling back to Kainaliu and Chef Giovanni – it’s well worth the trip. Make an early dinner reservation and spend a couple of hours savoring the evening. Amici Italian Bar & Grill: Tanto buon cibo!
79-7384 Mamalahoa Hwy
Kainaliu @ Aloha Theater