My boyfriend, who grew up in an Italian family in New York, moved to Oahu and asked me what my favorite Italian restaurant was. Without hesitation I answered, “Ricado’s.”
One week later he asked me for another recommendation — and I was stumped. As much as I like pasta dripping with butter and cheese, it’s not something I crave on a weekly basis.
And so the hunt began for the island’s best Italian eats. But Italian food on Oahu is a mixed plate. There’s a whole range out there, from Italian restaurants run by Italians to East Coast-style Italian to eateries with Japanese chefs trained in Italian Michelin kitchens. There are hidden surprises at places that don’t specialize in Italian. With so many pasta-bilities, how did I choose?
The criteria were simple: fresh noodles and ingredients, a dish’s overall taste, and wow factor. I went with my gut. If I loved it and finished my entire dish — and was still raving about it days later — it made the list.
After nine months, these are the dishes that stood out. And since my quest for good Italian happened on top of everything else I was eating for Frolic — crazy taiyaki, ice cream flights and the entire Fat Kid Friday series — here’s how I managed to keep on eating.
Harbor Carbonara, Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38
Pasta at a seafood restaurant? While any entrée cooked in the Brasa ovens is notable at Harbor, the carbonara pasta ($19 lunch, $22 dinner) should not be overlooked. It’s one of the most frequently ordered dishes.
Components: Baby spinach, pancetta, poached egg, baby pear tomatoes and garlic bread.
I love how Harbor’s version includes generous amounts of spinach. The buttery sauce is a little wetter than I would like, but it’s cheesy. The pancetta is plentiful and the poached egg is a crowning glory. Egg yolk just makes everything tastier. The garlic bread is a thin, buttered slice of sourdough — perfect for mopping up all that sauce.
Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38 • 1129 N. Nimitz Hwy. • Iwilei • 550-3740
Chicken piccata, Ricado’s Italian Restaurant
Ricado’s is in Pearl Kai, the same plaza as Kuru Kuru, one of my favorite casual sushi spots. I’ve ended up at Ricado’s on unexpected occasions because the wait was much shorter than Kuru Kuru’s. But I never complain.
My Ricado’s go-to is the chicken piccata ($17.90). It’s the best piccata I’ve ever had.
Lightly floured chicken breasts covered with capers, garlic and white wine butter lemon sauce. Ricado’s piccata is one of the most popular dishes.
The chicken-to-pasta ratio is on point and the chicken is tender and juicy. The dish is huge in flavor — I know I’ll reek of garlic later, but I don’t care — and I love the light, buttery sauce.
The best part is the capers. Ricado’s piccata has the most capers I’ve ever seen on any pasta dish. They give the dish an extra saltiness and bite that leaves me wanting more … even after I’ve mopped up the last of the sauce with the handmade noodles.
This has become my standard when I order piccata at other restaurants; most times the others aren’t even close. It’s always worth the extra hour on the treadmill later.
Ricado’s Italian Restaurant • Pearl Kai Shopping Center • 98-199 Kamehameha Hwy • Aiea • 484-0215
Sopressata pizza, Vino
I want the truffle mac and cheese, but that changes as soon as I read the evening’s featured specials. I end up getting the smoked pork pasta ($17), which is smoky, meaty and oh-so-tasty. But my friend’s sopressata pizza ($16), another special, is even better, so it’s the surprise exception on this pasta-centric list.
The sopressata pizza has crimini mushrooms and truffle oil, and it’s topped with an OK Farm sunny-side egg.
I love how the gooey cheese is fresh. All of Vino’s pizzas are made with house-made flatbread. The tomato sauce is light, and the rich, savory truffle oil takes center stage. The glorious egg yolk action makes it even better.
Note: Get there early. I’m almost hesitant to write this, because scoring a happy hour seat will be even harder now. The first 10 people in line qualify for seats at the bar, where the entire happy hour menu (excluding specials) is half-price. Since Vino is tapas-style, this is your chance to order different dishes to share without putting a dent in your wallet. So even though Vino doesn’t open until 5:30 p.m., the happy hour line can start 30 minutes prior. And happy hour is only from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Sigh … you’re welcome.
Vino • 500 Ala Moana Blvd. • Kakaako • 524-8466
Linguine carbonara, Fete Hawaii
Fete brings Brooklyn to the streets of Honolulu’s Chinatown via a menu of New American dishes. I wouldn’t be doing this Italian roundup justice without mentioning its linguine carbonara ($19).
This carbonara has slab bacon, Portuguese sausage, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. – Photo by Thomas Obungen.
Fete’s carbonara is a harmonious medley of cheeses, fresh noodles and hearty chunks of meat. The Parmigiano Reggiano-Pecorino Romano blend is bold enough to make cheese lovers swoon. Salty cubes of bacon and sausage up to the savoriness, the sauce is creamy and buttery — not oily — and the pasta-to-sauce ratio is perfect. Best of all, this carbonara’s not rich nor heavy — aka, I don’t feel super bloated even after devouring my entire plate.
Fete Hawaii • 2 N. Hotel St. • Chinatown • 369-1390
Spaghetti con tobiko e calamari, Arancino on Beachwalk
You’re probably asking, “Why didn’t you list the Kahala location?” Well, because Arancino on Beachwalk offers kamaaina lunch specials; you just need to show your ID. Arancino’s Kahala location is more upscale, but they don’t have lunch specials.
Lunch specials ($23.95) feature a small selection of pastas and pizzas with your choice of a garden salad, Caesar salad or tomato basil bisque.
If you want your pasta mild, order it without the spice and just add your own red pepper seasoning.
Arancino is famous for its Japanese-Italian fare, and the spaghetti con tobiko e calamari is sublime. It features flying fish roe and calamari that’s lightly sautéed in a garlic and olive oil sauce. The tobiko adds a nice crunchy texture to the softer noodles and the garlic sauce is light and flavorful. It’s perfect for seafood lovers and is the epitome of Japanese-meets-Italian fare.
Arancino on Beachwalk • 255 Beachwalk Ave. • Waikiki • 923-5557
Cider-braised pork belly and apple pasta, Scratch Kitchen & Meatery
Scratch Kitchen & Meatery may be famous for their meaty dinners and mouthwatering brunches, but it’s home to one of my favorite pasta dishes on the island.
This pasta dish ($15) is one of Meatery’s most popular lunch items. All the noodles are hand-cut from a local pasta company in Kalihi, and the pork is from a local farm in Waianae.
Succulent pork belly. Wide ribbons of al dente pasta. Generous chunks of bleu cheese (my favorite). The slight spice of jalapenos. Runny egg yolk. Need I say more?!
Scratch Kitchen & Meatery • 1170 Auahi St. • South Shore Market • Ward • 589-1669
Pappardelle, Bethel Union
When Frolic’s Thomas Obungen heard I was working on a pasta round-up, he told me I had to order the pappardelle from Bethel Union. Advice from one Fat Kid to another should always be regarded.
The papardelle ($18) is served at lunch and dinner. It has locally made noodles, short ribs and cremini mushrooms, all tossed in a sherry cream sauce.
The noodles are wide and chewy, the sherry cream sauce is lighter and a decent portion of shredded short rib makes the dish feel luxe. Despite my good intentions, the pasta doesn’t make it home — but hey, it was only the lunch portion size. At least, that’s how I console myself.
Bethel Union • 1115 Bethel St. • Chinatown • 524-0447
Norcina Rigatoni Modern, La Cucina Ristorante Italiano
With its dimly lit, cozy atmosphere, La Cucina’s the quintessential date-night spot … or a cure-all if you’re craving Italian.
With homemade gnocchi, ravioli, risotto and more on the menu, narrowing your options is a feat in itself. All of the nostra (house) pasta dishes — made from scratch — are sure to please and feature the eatery’s fresh noodles.
Norcina: Rigatoni Modern ($20) has homemade Italian sausage sautéed with white wine, porcini mushrooms and pecorino Romano.
The thick, tubular rigatoni noodles come saturated with the white wine sauce, and Romano cheese is prevalent in each bite. The sausage is my favorite part — it’s moist, tender and flavorful.
Save room for the crème brulee cheesecake ($9). It has that signature layer of caramelized sugar as well as a graham cracker crust. Unlike its American cousin, this cheesecake is light and fluffy, with an almost whipped consistency.
It’s so good, you won’t want to share.
La Cucina Ristorante Italiano • Imperial Plaza Building • 725 Kapiolani Blvd. • Kakaako • 593-2626
Siciliana, Taormina Sicilian Cuisine
Taormina is known for its Sicilian cuisine — from southern Sicily, to be exact. So it makes sense to order the Siciliana spaghetti ($13), which is only on the lunch menu.
The Siciliana is the features spaghetti topped with house-made beef ragu sauce, eggplant, spinach and garlic. And it’s drizzled with balsamic.
This dish is similar in texture and taste to a bolognese pasta, except it has more veggies. The balsamic glaze makes it stand out — the drizzle gives it a slightly sweeter taste, much like a salad vinaigrette, but it’s not overly vinegary.
The Siciliana is the second most popular lunch order. Tied for first are Taormina’s famous ricci di mare ($32), featuring fresh sea urchin, and granchio ($15) fettuccine with crab meat and a lightly spiced tomato cream sauce.
Taormina Sicilian Cuisine • 227 Lewers St. • Waikiki • 926-5050
Finally, for what it’s worth, my Italian-raised boyfriend’s favorite spots on this list are La Cucina, Taormina and Ricado’s. And this from someone raised to make his own artisanal pizza, meatballs and tomato sauce, all from scratch.