DINING IN & OUT
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chef Donato Loperfido closed his Manoa restaurant in February but remains active on the local food scene. He has started an importing business, Flavors of Italy, and is culinary development director for Pearl, a restaurant and lounge at Ala Moana Center that opens Friday. He paid a visit to the Pearl last week, when interior work was still under way.
Donato shares Italian flair
Donato Loperfido is the quintessential Italian chef: expressive, opinionated and passionate about everything.
After a 21-year connection to the islands and a marriage to Hawaii-raised Desiree Kanae, the decidedly global Loperfido claims to have turned his in-laws away from Spam and swears his 2-year-old twin daughters shun white rice in favor of risotto with truffle oil.
"I feel myself the true ambassador of Italian food in this town," he said with much gesticulation.
After Loperfido closed his restaurant, Donato's, in February, he spent several months in Italy, leading many to believe the venerable chef had disappeared from the Hawaii food scene for good. Instead, he was simply changing gears and igniting several ambitious plans.
He began a new business called Flavors of Italy, which will import fine cheeses, crackers, olive oil, aged balsamic vinegars, pasta, tomato products, focaccia, wine and other specialty products from Italy. The first container is set to arrive soon.
Loperfido handpicked all of the items himself and guaranteed that each is not just packaged in Italy, but made in Italy by Italian companies. Products will be sold online and in a few stores in Hawaii. Flavors of Italy imports and distributes high-quality Italian products on the mainland as well, primarily in California, Las Vegas and the Pacific Northwest.
"The ingredients ... whether it's Italian vodka or crackers or aged parmesan ... they're really well selected," said master sommelier Chuck Furuya, whose restaurant Vino will carry some wines from Flavors of Italy. "To search out that kind of quality, you've got to have passion. They're authentic, with lots of culture, lots of heritage, made by artisans. Like him, each of those things has a lot of character."
Loperfido said that when he chose the wines -- most in a fairly moderate price range -- he went right to the vineyards. "I don't speak to a person in a suit and tie," he said. "I want the person whose hands are rough cut from working the land. That's important to me."
Furuya said that Loperfido selected wines "crafted from indigenous grapes, very much about the culture of the respective regions. And they're very soulful."
Wine merchant Lyle Fujioka agreed. "Our opinion is that his wines are quite stunning," he said. "It's more than, 'Here's a guy who's Italian bringing in Italian wines.' The selection is extraordinary. And they reflect an amazing quality-to-price ratio."
Fujioka also plans to carry some of Loperfido's food products because he trusts Loperfido's instincts. "He is very, very talented. There's no denying his abilities as a chef. He knows food inside and out."
This might be why Pearl, the fine-dining lounge slated to open this week in Ala Moana Center, approached Loperfido to be culinary development director. He created the menu around tapas -- what he described as "beautifully presented small servings."
Because the lounge is concentrating on the food-and-wine experience, it will offer 30 wines by the glass. "We don't want to be known as a nightclub," he said. "Our dance floor is really small. We're not looking for people to come over with slippers. We're looking for people to dress well, and to have a nice meal without getting stuffed."
Choices include his famous dessert, Chef Donato signature Nocciolato, and he is reviving chocolate and cheese fondues, a favorite of small groups, he said.
Loperfido opened his first restaurant, Donato's, in 1999 in Kahala. He later moved to Manoa. After the restaurant closed, he spent four months in Italy scouting food and wine for Flavors of Italy, and purchasing a 12th-century Relaix ne Chateau, which he plans to transform into a hotel with fine dining and a spa by 2008.
If these ventures weren't enough, Loperfido also started a culinary travel enterprise called Travel Italy with Chef Donato. For two weeks in April or September, visitors can follow Loperfido from wine tastings to Italian castles, to cooking demonstrations and chic restaurants. "It's something very private; I want it to be cozy," he said. "But people got to contact me for prices, because this is not cheap!"
Loperfido's life has revolved around food for as long as he can remember. "Food is a religion at home," he said of his childhood in Italy. "Cooking for me has been since I was born, I guess."
One of his prized Flavors of Italy products is burrata, a fresh cheese resembling mozzarella, with cream inside. It must be custom-ordered and flown in overnight from Milan, because it has a shelf life of only six days. "But it's so good," gushed Loperfido. "I'm telling you!"
Loperfido said he's invested nearly half a million dollars in his business. "Olive oil is more expensive than wine," he said. "But you can taste the olives. You can smell them!" Clearly, he believes in his products and his choices.
"Good food and good wine are about passion," said Furuya, "and Donato certainly has a lot of passion."