Every morning Steven Cappelli, the owner of Casanova in Makawao, gets up and reads reviews from Open Table, Yelp and Trip Advisor.
“My mornings start with reading these reviews,” says Cappelli. “What a way to start the day, I know. My phone gets the notifications. But I really use it as a training tool. In the beginning of social media sites like this, it was very emotional. But now I’m so used to it. I read through them every day. In Yelp and Trip Advisor, they have people who really like to write reviews. In fact, they are all five stars or zero. They either love you or you are the worst place ever. You need some sort of motivation to go there and write. With Open Table, you use your phone. Naturally you use your phone to make a reservation. Then people usually just put the star rating they want for the review. Some write a short review. They ask if you would recommend or not.”
But one morning earlier this month, he received a very different notification from Open Table.
“Best Italian Restaurant in the State of Hawaii by Open Table,” says Cappelli. “I just couldn’t believe it. But we are thrilled. Most of our reservations come through Open Table. A lot of people are using that, and then after customers dine using Open Table they are asked to rate the location. What I think got us this high rating is that we are 100 percent recommended out of our reviews.”
In fact, Maui restaurants seem to do really well on Open Table, with several restaurants rating high in the state like Mama’s Fish House, and UH Maui College’s Class Act Restaurant. For Casanova, the accolade is a sweet acknowledgement for Cappelli and his years in the business.
“The wisdom is to understand when it’s time to change, and what is not the time to change,” says Cappelli. “I am proud to have to have 30 years in the business. We opened in 1986. I think I am blessed with a core bunch of staff that are with me for decades and years. I have a constant effort to keep in touch with what is new, and what people want. That goes with the menu. There are items on the menu that could never change, people come for that. They grew up with the Chicken Funghi. I cannot change it. But we keep working on and proposing new dimensions of Italian cuisine. We want to give our regulars some variety.”
Casanova brings in new dishes developed from ideas for ingredients that come to the island, or ideas that Cappelli gets from keeping in touch with the dining scenes on the West Coast and New York. Some new items you may not have tried at Casanova are the Dijon-glazed grilled wild Alaskan salmon with grilled asparagus and quinoa salad ($16), risotto with artichokes and pecorino of sheep milk cheese ($16), grilled lobster tail with fettuccine tossed in a shellfish brandy sauce ($24) and lamb meatballs over creamy polenta with gorgonzola cheese ($14). All the pastas are made in house daily and Cappelli says the price point has been a key point for his great ratings.
“A lot of my customers go to Italy on vacation and come back and say that they prefer our food to Italy,” says Cappelli. “Because it pleases their need to have one plate. In Italy, you get many plates–one with a very little bit of pasta, one with a very little bit of fish, then a very little vegetable. The dining in Italy is all small plates. In fact you don’t see ‘Pasta’ on the menu in Italy. You see Primi Piatti and that means first courses. What American restaurants have done with Italian cuisine is offer more one-plate dishes, with separate appetizers. Another thing we are really strong with is offering vegetables that come from Maui. Italy restaurants do not offer vegetables, people do not go out for vegetables. But we really care about our vegetables and they are an important part of our menu here. We give the flavor of Italian food adapted to the habits of the American customer. ”
Cappelli says another important distinction at Casanova is the ability to keep their night scene fresh.
“Ladies Night is this miracle of 28 years,” says Cappelli. “It’s amazing. Generation after generation of ladies and boys. So many people have met at this nightclub. I have partnered with Malik Cousins, from the Farmacy, to bring in new DJ’s. We are putting in a new dimension to our Wednesday night event. We are also going to work on revitalizing the weekend nights with a major emphasis on new young local bands.”
I asked Cousins what new faces we might see at Casanova.
“We wanted to do local Reggae bands, and other local music on the weekends,” says Cousins. “You know, getting more of a platform for local bands to play. We are going to make an effort to bring in, not big name bands per se, but big for the night club scene. Acts like Anuhea or Kimie. There is this new band called Redmelo who might do something. I was going to put a Reggae DJ like Boomshot or Irie Dole with them. We are also considering a Motown Monday maybe in the next month or so. All classic Motown dance songs, and no cover. This is something that’s trending nationwide, like Honolulu, San Francisco and New York.”
For Ladies Night, the idea is have several different DJ’s each week.
“Ladies Night is a famous party!” says Cousins. “Ever since I was 18 and I was sneaking in. So for Ladies Night we are rotating different DJ’s every Wednesday and we want to give everyone a chance to play who is good enough. Kurt is a great DJ and has been doing such a solid job, but now other DJ’s that have really wanted a chance at Casanova will be able to book in. I’m also hosting and playing sets on Wednesdays. I will do the opening and closing sets. It will be a variation of artists–maybe like a request DJ who can play a wide range of audiences and then another one who is more of an colorful artist and plays a specific set list and is coming to bring a certain mood like a house set or a base set or a hip hop set. They are going to come and bring a flavor to the crowd.”
Cappelli says even though he changes things up, there are still the classics at Casanova that you can count on, like his pizza, house-made linguine, black pasta with seafood, kale and Brussels sprouts Caesar and ahi poke in a crispy pasta basket. Then there’s the focaccia you can’t stop eating, and the ossobuco that’s out of this world. Cappelli says his tiramisu is the best in the state, a self-proclaimed rating. There’s no other restaurant that lets your kids make their own pizza, either.
“One more confirmation is that when you are in business for so long, you need to partner with young people to bring in new and fresh energy and keep shuffling energetically,” says Cappelli. “If the walls don’t change, then at least you can change the energy around. My job is to shake it up.”
1188 Makawao Ave.
All photos by Sean Hower