COURTESY TAORMINA SICILIAN CUISINE
Diners at Taormina Sicilian Cuisine often opt to start with the antipasti misti platter featuring your selection of four appetizers for $17.
Taormina does Italian right
The Great American Fear is that China will take over the world, but here in Hawaii we might be a little more accommodating to outside influences. From a foodie perspective, we're already Little Japan.
Since returning from New York about a month ago, it seems I've been dining in nothing but Japanese restaurants. As much as I like to vary it up in this column -- man cannot live on one cuisine alone -- even looking forward, I see little else besides Japanese restaurants on the horizon.
Confronted with a name like Taormina Sicilian Cuisine, you might expect the new restaurant along Waikiki Beach Walk to be an exception to the Japanese phenomenon, but it's the work of WDI Corp., based in Japan.
About 15 years ago, I was pretty chilly on the idea of Japanese-born-and-trained chefs cooking Italian cuisine. Flavors were weak, sauces were watered down. It was all geared toward a timid palate, and definitely unsatisfactory for anyone actually raised on Italian cuisine.
That was a long time ago, and Taormina shows how much East and West have fused into one global skillet.
Upon visiting the restaurant, I mentally prepared myself for something bland, so I was more than pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong.
The modern space boasts blond highlights to focus most of your attention on the lively reds of pasta in tomato sauces. The compact, vertical restaurant manages to accommodate guests on three levels so that no one feels crowded or claustrophobic.
Though the restaurant is new, service flows, thanks to the presence of such longtime industry professionals as general manager Leatrice Grantham and master sommelier Roberto Viernes, also a Star-Bulletin/MidWeek wine columnist.
Quickly scanning the menu, and considering the gleaming interior, I knew Waikiki prices would be in effect, though pasta, as filling as it is, makes it possible to limit spending to about $40 for two.
They just don't make it easy with antipasti ($17) comprising your choice of four selections out of six offerings. I chose Palermo-style caponata, a delicate salad of diced eggplant, tomatoes, pine nuts and capers; cauliflower sautéed in delicate roasted garlic; marinated ama-ebi; and baby octopus and artichokes marinated in a light pesto sauce. All were served chilled. Once you find your favorite, you can order any of these items a la carte, at $10 to $14 per selection.
One thing immediately made clear from the antipasti was that in "cooking Italian," chef Aki Yamamoto hasn't abandoned his Japanese sensibility of focusing diners' attention on the essence of an ingredient, treating both foodstuff and diners with respect. If you start out with great flavors and ingredients, little manipulation is necessary. This is universal among the great chefs of the world, but it is in the austerity of Japanese cuisine that this philosophy is best showcased.
The only dish I sampled that veered from this philosophy was oven-roasted prawns ($16) topped with a coating of orange-flavored bread crumbs, pine nuts and raisins. The orange flavor was one step too many, though that didn't stop me from enjoying the dish. It's only human, after all, to often find pleasure in things that are just plain wrong. I shouldn't like Spam, either, but I do.
CHEF YAMAMOTO, trained at Hattori Culinary Institute in Tokyo, spent two weeks in Sicily, tasting and developing his menu, including the one arrabiata ($16) I've found locally that is credibly spicy, served over rigatoni. With a combination of fresh Hamakua plum tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and red chili peppers, Yamamoto outdoes just about every arrabiata in town.
Other pasta selections include bucatini topped with fresh sardines ($18), fresh clams on spaghetti ($18) tossed with white wine and olive oil, and linguine in a creamy lobster sauce ($23). Uni (sea urchin) pasta ($32) is Taormina's specialty, but it's made and served in a skillet intended to serve two to four of like mind.
Heavier dishes would include grilled Colorado lamb chops ($45) served with grilled vegetables, breaded veal "Siciliana" served with an oregano tomato sauce, and grilled veal "Involtini," a roulade of tender veal strips with a center of porcini, chopped almonds and mozzarella, drizzled with marsala wine sauce. Split this dish with someone else having pasta and you'll be thoroughly satisfied.
For dessert there are traditional Italian sweets such as panna cotta ($8), tiramisu ($8) and various gelati ($7). With our meal going so well, I thought I'd give the cannoli ($8) a try. I haven't had a good one in ages. This one was better than most locally, but I'm still looking for the ultimate.