First impressions are lasting and visceral for me – every moment is recorded in high-definition. I replay them in my head, reliving them like they just happened. That's how it was with Italica Bar and Cafe, the first of two Italian-inspired concepts slated for the Velocity dealership at Kapiolani Boulevard and Ward Avenue. Think some of the best Italian fare in Hawaii in a swanky space with fast and free valet service.
The trattoria opened March 1 serving panini, salads and pastries alongside illy Coffee drinks and a generous selection of wine. The menu was curated with the help of Gianpaolo Raschi, whose Ristorante Guido in Rimini, Italy has won a Michelin star annually since 2008. In the kitchen, native Italian chef Maurizio Roberti will passionately discuss every detail of his dishes if you ask him. Most recently based in Japan, Roberti has cooked in restaurants from Australia to Dubai and is a certified ambassador of Italian cuisine by Academia Barilla International.
As a visual person, I appreciate the ability to see what I can order. With several cases atop the bar displaying most of the offerings, you might be tempted to order everything. But sometimes, it's what you can't see that you should get.
Panini selections range from salumi and eggplant to house-smoked salmon and olive oil marinated tuna, which are all on display, but it's the hot salsiccia alla griglia, cipolla e gorgonzola panini ($10) that you want. You know how some sandwiches need a side of chips or salad to fill you up? This behemoth is not one of those. The Italian sausage, generously flecked with fennel seeds, is blended in-house using local pork and grilled up for each order. It will require a wait, but it's totally worth it.
Soft ciabatta bread cradles a delicious mess of spicy wilted watercress, gorgonzola cheese crumbles and sweet balsamic caramelized onions. Together with the savory sausage patty, you get a well-rounded sandwich that satisfies the lunchtime hunger pangs. I don't know if Italians take a siesta, but I needed one after this lunch.
If sandwiches aren't your thing, try the lasagna. It's in a ramekin of bubbling bolognese, cheese and pasta sheets, surprisingly filling but not heavy. It satisfied me in the flavor department with a decent amount of bolognese meat sauce and creamy bechamel between layers of thin lasagna pasta. I wish it had spent a little more time in the oven to brown the top, and a slice of focaccia to mop up the sauce would have been nice, but I'm just being picky.
The item that I felt lacked a bit of gusto was the polipo (octopus) salad. The fried octopus legs were indistinguishable in a pile of fingerling potatoes and peppery greens. For $12, I would have a difficult time purchasing it again, even at the behest of the barista who recommended it.
If you're looking for some interesting snacks, try the crocchette di patate al tartufo nero ($8) or the suppli al telefono ($7.50). Both are coated in breadcrumbs and fried golden brown and come two to an order.
Don't you dare skip dessert here. So far, the tiramisu has captured my heart. Vanilla-scented marscapone cheese is whipped into fluffy oblivion and the espresso-steeped lady fingers remain moist through every bite. For $6, you can't get a better tiramisu in town, nor a bigger one.
Oh, and I can't forget the coffee. Serving illy is already a step in the right direction, so when I tried the latte ($5), I was happy to taste they're doing those beans justice. I'm going back to try the Affogatilly, an affogato with illy espresso gelato, a shot of gelato and whipped cream. It sounds decadent. As for other beverages, expect to pay about $9-10 a glass for the monthly red and white wines and about $12 for a classic Italian negroni or an Aperol spritz.
Velocity's second restaurant is slated for a June opening on the second level overlooking the Blaisdell Arena and Ward Avenue. Raschi and Roberti are also tasked with developing a different Italian concept and menu. Based on what I've tasted at Italica, we all have something to look forward to.
Italica Bar and Cafe
888 Kapiolani Blvd.
8 a.m. - 8 p.m. daily with expanded hours coming soon
Complimentary valet parking