Hawaii’s Renaissance Man
The man behind the food and art at Cafe Sistina isn’t stopping there, and recently finished murals for an Aiea church and at the Federal Building
Sergio Mitrotti is a man for all seasons, a master of many disciplines who is as at home several leagues under the sea as he is tens of stories up on a scaffold, able to wield a paintbrush one moment and a chef’s knife the next.
Yes, Mitrotti is a true Renaissance man, and nowhere are his talents more prevalent than at his restaurant, Café Sistina.
Patrons flock to the South King Street eatery on a near-weekly basis just as much for the food – an eclectic blend of flavors that span Italy’s many regions, made of recipes from Mitrotti’s mother and grandmother’s kitchen as well as concoctions cooked up from his own imagination – as for the art.
Frescoes cover every square inch of the interior, starting at the floor and expanding upward and onto the ceiling. Even the walk-way leading from the covered parking lot is made to transport diners to the holy Vatican City.
The scenes come straight from the Sistine Chapel (hence the restaurant’s name) and depict images well known to many, including The Creation of Adam, the prophetic figures Isaiah and the Libyan Sibyl, along with other Biblical tales that tell of man’s long-storied struggle with good versus evil.
These masterpieces, both gustatory and visual, are all the creation of Mitrotti, whose background is as varied as his venerable talents.
Mitrotti was born and raised in the northern Italian village of Turin, a cultural epicenter of art galleries, restaurants, churches, theaters, museums, piazzas, gardens and other venues.
And while this may seem prophetic for his station later in life, Mitrotti’s first love was neither art nor food. Rather, it was – and remains to this day – the ocean.
“I was always around the sea,” says Mitrotti. “As a teenager I was kind of different from my peers in the sense that I was looking for experience in things, in the sea, in the ocean. My goal was to sail around the world by myself, and at that time, in the ’60s, that was when sailing around the world was a real adventure.”
By the age of 18, Mitrotti had become Italy’s youngest certified scuba master and soon was exploring the deeps using a homemade underwater camera system of his own creation.
“I had a couple of boats and started going around doing underwater photography,” Mitrotti remembers. “I was very good at scuba, at skin-diving, swimming. I got gold medals in freestyle. It was a life basically lived in the ocean.”
In the late ’70s he crossed the Atlantic and headed west to California and Beverly Hills, where he operated the high-end retailer Madonna Man with his brother.
“Madonna came to the store to check it out to see if we were stealing her name, but we started it before she started singing,” Mitrotti says, with a laugh.
“We were doing very well. I even got TV credit for the creation of the Miami Vice look,” he adds. “The producer, Michael Mann, was my customer, and when he started the series he wanted me to create the look based on the look and the style I was selling.”
By 1987, however, the fast-paced L.A. lifestyle had lost its luster, and Mitrotti found himself craving a change.
“I had been working in the spiritual field for many, many years as well, and I was told to get out and come to Hawaii,” he says of the decision to settle in the Islands.
“I came and didn’t know what to do,” Mitrotti continues. “I thought, open up another clothing store? No, nobody in Hawaii dresses up – wrong! But I didn’t know this, so I opened a restaurant.”
Though not a culinary school graduate in the traditional sense (he actually holds a degree in lithography and typography), Mitrotti says he learned all he needed from his boyhood spent in the kitchen under the tutelage of his mother.
“The family in Italy is really important, and the food is sacred,” he says. “I remember being the slave for my mother, making ravioli, making fettuccini, and that actually turned out to be very good for me!”
His first restaurant, the trendy Café Cambio on Kapiolani Boulevard, was an immediate success with local foodies but closed after a few years following a divorce from his former business partner.
In 1991 Mitrotti rebounded by opening Café Sistina in the First Interstate Building.
As a way of adding an extra helping of flavor to the space, Mitrotti painted The Creation of Adam on a wall of the main dining room. From there he added more, slowly elaborating upon the previous day’s work in the lulls between heavy diner traffic.
“I only wanted to do one painting, but then I got carried away,” he says with a sly smile. “Painting is meditation. It’s a challenge, there is an involvement there, and when I’m done it’s almost like I ran 20 miles – my body aches, my mind is dull.
“And when people say, oh, you know how to paint, I say no, because you never know how. It’s a constant process of creating something that wasn’t there before. It doesn’t matter if I’ve done this and this and that; the next brushstroke is totally new.”
While he says Café Sistina always will be a work in progress, Mitrotti has completed two major murals outside his restaurant’s walls. The first is of the Founding Fathers in the Prince Kuhio Federal Building, which took approximately three months to complete. The second is a tribute to Hawaii’s Saint Damien of Molokai and Saint Marianne Cope applied to an outdoor wall of St. Elizabeth Church in Aiea.
“I lovingly and jokingly say that I’m just like Michelangelo – I’ve served the state and I’ve served the church, serving the princes and the popes!” he laughs.
Mitrotti was approached in early 2012 by a monsignor from St. Elizabeth with the offer to decorate the statues of Saint Damien brought in from Italy. The initial painting was so beautiful that the church’s pastor asked that he complete the entire wall. Mitrotti obliged, putting the finishing brush-strokes on the massively detailed mural this past December.
“Now they want me to do the interior, so that’s what I’m going to do,” he says.
And as Café Sistina approaches its 22nd year of business this year, Mitrotti says he feels it’s nearing the time to add a new chapter to his incredible life story.
“My next project will be to take the boat I had wanted to take when I was 20 and sail the ocean solo,” he says. “Maybe I’ll start by going around the Islands here for training, maybe take a long sail here and there. We’ll see.
“But I’m not done yet,” he adds of his time at Café Sistina. “I have to do more painting.”