Italian Cuisine With An Island Touch
When Rodhel Ibay was working at Rio Las Vegas and The Palms, he’d order produce from Hawaii as often as he could.
“I would be on the phone all the time asking the Hawaii farmers to send their local produce to us,” he says. “Sometimes they could, but lots of times it was difficult.”
Today, ordering for his restaurant is a little easier. As the executive chef at Fresco, a new Italian restaurant in Waikiki, Hawaii farmers are as close as the Wednesday afternoon Honolulu market or the market at Kapiolani Community College.
“Now we just call every day to local farms like MA’O and ‘Nalo, and we go to the KCC farmers markets and other markets around town,” he says, grinning.
Local produce, fresh fish and a commitment to combining Italian influence with island seasonal gives Fresco an edge over American fusion restaurants where red sauce reigns.
Ibay’s experience (in Las Vegas and also at local restaurants including Hau Tree Lanai, Kapono’s and Formaggio) has given him a passion for sourcing great produce and treating it simply.
“The goal is to do very little to the food,” he says, “to let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Homer Roales, Fresco managing partner, brought in trusted friend and chef Kentaro Torii to work with Ibay on a menu inspired by the Northern and Central regions of Italy.
“The menu is a collaboration between Chef Torii – who trained in Italy – and Rodhel,” says Roales.
The two worked on dishes such as Linguine All’Aragosta E Granchio (linguine with Maine lobster, crab and tomato cream sauce) and Filetto Di Manzo (seared island beef tenderloin, marsala wine sauce, gor-gonzola fondue and kukui nut potato puree) for months before opening.
“We wanted to show people that the menu is very different and very fresh,” says Roales.
Already signature dishes are emerging, and island fish is proving popular. Acqua Pazza is a preparation of fresh fish simply poached with mussels, littleneck clams, olive, capers, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes and Kahuku sea asparagus. “The name means ‘crazy water,'” says Ibay. “All we do is cook the fish with the pasta water, and people love it.”
I was impressed with the Penne Al Quattro Formaggi ($19.95), a dish of penne pasta tossed in a four-cheese sauce, porcini mushrooms and roasted kukui nuts. From first bite, there’s an incredibly complex range of flavors, with salty, earthy elements provided by locally grown mushrooms and the inspired textural addition of kukui nut. Spaghetti Al Gamberi ($25.95), juicy garlic shrimp tossed with local asparagus, fried garlic and a hint of jalapeno, is another strong dish worthy of recommendation.
There’s a range of house-made fresh breads that are worth the trip alone, especially if you appreciate the crunch of a warm foccacia crust or a fresh dinner roll.
Lobster linguine is the dish to order if you’re looking for attention to detail, and it’s something you won’t find on most other menus around town.
“We make a confit of crab and mix it with tomato, and then add fresh Maine lobster tail and serve it over linguine,” says Ibay. “It’s simple, but people really seem to like it.”
There’s a lot to like at Fresco, including the lighter, organic tones of floors, walls and furnishings. The successful makeover in dining room, kitchen and bar reflects high standards being set by the new owners.
Hilton Hawaiian Village
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.
Dinner 5-9.30 p.m.
Reservations: 941 8868