The restaurant business on Maui can be ruthless. You open, you’re hot, then three months later you’re not and you’re gone. Some go the distance, but not many.
This weekend, the Upcountry Italian dining and dancing establishment known as Casanova celebrates 25 years Upcountry with a float in the Makawao Rodeo Parade. Owner Giovanni Cappelli said everyone’s invited to celebrate–they’ll have a rocking flatbed with a large birthday cake, music and whipped cream.
I recently talked story with Cappelli on how Makawao has changed, how Casanova puts mana in their pizza and what lay behind the Ladies Night baby boom.
MAUITIME: How did you get the lease on the restaurant?
GIOVANNI CAPPELLI: Our cafe started in 1986 with the deli. It was how we arrived in Maui. Next to us there was this cowboy place that was basically dead. They had a once a week gig but it was dying. So one day they just left. They just left the doors open. At that time, the lease was with Bob Longhi. Immediately we called Bob and he asked me what zodiac sign I was. I said, “I’m a Taurus.” He said, “Okay you got it. I like Taurus. Taurus can have the lease.” The whole interview with Longhi was about my Taurus sign–thank God I was a Taurus and I got the lease. Of course I’m Italian and Bob Longhi had a lot of appreciation of Italy. Italy was in his heart even if he was not really Italian. But the zodiac sign was the clincher in the deal. He was right: look, I am still here. All my old partners, they are all gone. I’m all by myself because I am a Taurus. We just keep going.
MT: There is a lot of history in that building. What was it before Casanova?
GC: Bob had the lease but he did not own the property. The property was owned by the Molina family. They were the original family that did what it was originally called: Club Rodeo. It was a USO club, a place where the officers, the soldiers and marines could go. It was around World War II. The Molina family also had a famous swing band, the Molina Swing Band, that played there. Their logo was a saxophone because of this band performing in the club. We had the Molina Swing Band back in 1994. It was an anniversary of WWII and the marines had a reunion, all camping in Haiku. We threw a party with them and the Molina family band playing, and these marines 50 years older. All the older ladies of Maui showed up to dance with them. They had all danced together here 50 years before.
MT: How did Casanova make it when so many had failed before?
GC: Longhi got it from the Molina family and the cowboys ran him out of town in about six months. He renovated it and put money in it. In 1981, he got it from the Molina family. From then on, it was three or four businesses that failed. Piero Resta had it for about eight months before us. Frank Silva, the head of the liquor control department, had it as a restaurant for a bit. Many people tried the spot, and finally these Italians arrived. We hit it big not only for the food, but because we hit the music scene.
MT: I think of Makawao as a sleepy little town. How did nightlife make it big Upcountry?
GC: Our luck was that we arrived in the transition phase. The end of the paniolo era in Makawao and the beginning of the gentrification of Upcountry. Before us it was a cowboy joint, and nothing was happening. The old Portuguese society of Upcountry Maui was becoming a windsurfing community at that time. We immediately hit it big on the live entertainment. There was no Maui Arts and Cultural Center and the music scene was totally lacking. We packed the place with shows like Cecilio and Kapono, Taj Mahal, Kool and the Gang, War and CJ Chenier. Blues was big–Maui was all about heavy duty rock. Barry Flanagan [of Hapa] had a rock band called The Penetrators, and the girls flocked to the shows.
MT: Didn’t Sam Kinison do a show here, too?
GC: Sam Kinison performed right there on the stage a week before he died in a car accident. He was an asshole. He had a private helicopter bring him from the Big Island to Maui, and he took a limo from the airport to Makawao. He performed two shows. There are a lot of artists that performed here that are not with us anymore. Richie Havens, he was amazing. All the connections with the blues musicians and shows–it was not in my original plan. It just happened because we met a promoter who wanted to do a show. Then we started doing the shows on our own. You have to ride the wave and be alert enough to catch it.
MT: Why did the pizza oven going in your restaurant make front page of the Maui News?
GC: When we got the restaurant we completely transformed it. The oven was the first wood burning oven on Maui. It was major news in 1989. The Maui News at that time was also the only source of information for Maui. Radio was very little. So The Maui News was there along with the forklift. I still have a framed article of our opening with the original owners hanging on the wall. We were not bad looking guys then. That’s what happens in 25 years of life. They change you.
That wood burning oven has been on 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 25 years. At night, we cover it with a lid. In the morning, they open it up and stoke the fire. Those ovens are built to last generations. That oven, and our pizza, has 25 years of mana.
MT: Casanova is iconic Upcountry. What’s your secret?
GC: Bad food kills you in a restaurant. Good food is the beginning of the conversation. What people look for is a place where they recognize everybody. We’re like the Cheers of Makawao, where everybody knows your name. The charm of Casanova is when you go there, you’re likely to see somebody you know. So if you are having an illicit affair, don’t show up here. Go to Kula Lodge.
MT: I bet you have lots of stories to tell about 25 years of Ladies Nights on Maui!
GC: Ladies was one of the very first nights we started. Immediately, it was the place where young people meet. Now the competition is the computer. Ladies night is still the biggest event consistently ongoing for 25 years. The music changes, the DJ changes, the girls change. Well the boys change, too–even if the boys just stand there with their damn Heineken in their hands while the girls do amazing erotic things with their bodies. When I was young, I didn’t even dream about that. I like that the girls are in charge of their sexuality nowadays. They’re not afraid to put it out there. The boys, they eventually get picked up.
The happy times that happen under this roof! One of my cooks: her parents met at ladies night, and then they had her, and now she cooks for me. There is this constant rotation of people who meet me and tell me, “we met at Ladies Night at Casanova.” Some of them may move on the next morning. But for a lot of them, it turns into a relationship and they get married. Some of them make children that are now 20 years old and come back to Casanova. Some of them work for me. It’s the generation of Ladies Night.
MT: How did Casanova come to be the poster boy for the no-smoking movement?
GC: In the 2000s, Dr. Nat was doing a packed salsa show every Friday night. That was killed by the no-smoking [rule]. One night, the place was so full of smoke, Nathan came to me and said, “we have to stop this.” So maybe I was a little buzzed, but I made a quick judgement. I got onstage and said, “From now on, this is a no-smoking establishment.” The Friday after that, nobody showed up. Jacques in Paia started a Friday night salsa with smoking.
I just can’t even imagine having people smoking like it was then. The bartenders had to have fans behind them to blow the smoke back into the people. Everyone was going home really sick. I was smoking in the place, too, all the time, but still, I was hating it because it was too much. So I became the poster boy for the stop smoking movement. I flew to Oahu to testify. I was really mad because I lost a major night because I said no more smoking. I was the very first nightclub in the state to go smoke-free.
MT: Why is theme for your anniversary parade float “Happy”–what does that mean to Casanova?
GC: What people go out for is the party. They want to be in a place where people are like them and they are going to hang out and socialize. We create that social environment, and have been for 25 years. It’s not about the cheap drinks, it’s about the happy times, the good times created here. People have been a part of the 25 years of happy times under this roof. That is our celebration.
Photo credit to Sean M. Hower