Sale Pepe is unassuming from the outside, but when you walk through their front doors, you enter Lahaina’s authentic corner of Italy, created by Michele and Qiana Di Bari. Nestled between a retail clothing shop and Maui Sugar Shop (a gluten-free bakery), the Di Bari’s have breathed new life into a space that served Lahaina for decades as a KFC.
“It was a big jump for us,” says Michele, who is the chef and runs the back of the house. “It was scary. We were used to New York. We had been in the business so many years. Things weren’t easy but we knew what we had in New York. We had a lot of connections already. To come over here, totally out of our comfort zone. We needed a lot of faith.”
At the time they had a restaurant called Va Beh in Brooklyn. They also came from two big families, and did not want a big wedding.
“We have a big family,” says Qiana, who manages the front of the house. “I’m the oldest of five, Michele is the youngest of seven. When it was time to get married we didn’t want any part of that. We eloped at the Ritz in Kapalua. We thought how bad could it be? We had never been to Maui before that. We fell in love with Maui. We couldn’t stop thinking about it. We just kept coming back every six months. When our daughter was about two and half we thought it was time.”
Qiana says she was phasing out of her career in the music industry, focusing on the family and their business. The couple was finding it hard to keep family first in the urban environment. They were dreaming more and more of a life and restaurant on Maui.
“That’s why we came,” says Michele. “We couldn’t take any more of the cold, the craziness, the people. It was getting too much. Every time we came for vacation we came up with a plan to get here. It started as a 10-year plan, then it changed to five, then four. The last time we came in January in the middle of winter and it was like there is no way we can make it five more years. We looked on Craigslist and found an apartment. The day before we were planning to leave we got an apartment in Lahaina. The five-year plan turned into the five-week plan.”
They thought they would take some time off but then stumbled across the space that they felt had enough potential for them to play with their ideas.
“This is different from Va Beh because this is a more expanded version of what that was,” says Qiana. “Va Beh was very small, even smaller than this! It sat 25 with the bar. We did some fresh pasta, but not all fresh pasta like we do here. We didn’t change the menu every day like we do here. Sale Pepe is more what we wished for when we would come here to visit. A neighborhood place that we could come to two or three times a week. High quality food, low price point. That’s what we were after. It wasn’t part of our plan to open a restaurant immediately. We thought we would stay here for a year and take a break, focus on our daughter. But then we found this place and we thought it’s just off the beaten path enough where we can experiment and try something different and see what happens. If it fails, it fails, but let’s see what happens here. We took a leap! And we are still leaping in a lot of ways.”
The small restaurant has quickly gained a big reputation as the spot to get phenomenal Italian food. On any given night, it’s crowded with eager diners, both visitors and locals, ready to try Michele’s handmade pasta and pizza, imported Italian cheese and meats and wine.
“Our number one seller, is Michele’s Kale and Sausage dish, it’s never left the menu,” says Qiana. “It’s always been there. That was a broccoli rabe dish originally, and it had to change because we couldn’t find the broccoli rabe here. Kale became the green. That is how Maui affects us. We are limited but also anything is possible. A lot of his references have to be adjusted to what’s available.”
Michele says his strategy is to keep everything simple and basic, the way he would do it at home in Italy.
“Italian cuisine is simple,” says Michele. “We go simple. We use the best ingredients. We just want to do basic simple Italian food. We don’t want to anything fancy. We use local ingredients. We use the best Italian products, 100 percent. Italian flour, olive oil, cheeses, prosciutto we import from Italy. We make the pizza with fresh mozzarella. We get the mozzarella every week fresh. It’s very hard to do. Nobody does that here. When I cook here, I’m thinking about my mom–I’m not thinking about a fancy dish. There are no tweezers in our kitchen. That is what is simple and basic Italian cuisine.”
Despite the simplicity, the dishes come to you in a complex symphony of herbs, tomatoes, cheeses and semolina that play out on the palate. Michele is also a bit of a pizza intellectual.
“He went to the oldest pizza-making school and learned how to make really amazing pizza before we opened,” says Qiana.”
The pizza is fantastic. Michele says the secret to the dough is in its aging.
“It’s very healthy,” says Michele. “Our pasta is water and semolina flour. There’s nothing else. We only serve fresh pasta. Our pizza dough raises for three days. We have a strong semolina flour that can take the raising. So it’s finished raising before it’s served. When you eat this pizza you feel great, it’s nice and light. There a lot of places that make the dough in the morning and are baking it at night and when you eat that you feel so stuffed and full because it’s raising in your stomach. I was making pizza in New York but not like this. I have worked with the flour all my life. This is the first place I’m doing pizza like this. I just want to do it 100 percent right.”
Sale Pepe is expanding, taking over another sliver of space next door. They will be opening a new lunch service in November.
“Lunch is going to be a small menu,” says Michele. “It will be two pasta dishes, one with meat. Two salads, two sandwiches. We are going to do a pizzetta–an eight-inch pizza. It’s so much better than getting a slice. It will make such a difference. For about $6, it’s like about the same as getting two slices but so much fresher. I haven’t seen this even in New York, so I’m really excited. I think people are going to love it.”
“We hope to open November 1st,” says Qiana. “I think we can stay in the $6 to $12 range. With one super special that is $15. But we want to stay in a really accessible price point. I feel like there’s a whole market of people we haven’t touched yet. We want to touch them.”
Sale Pepe is also joining with Feast later in September, and has also started catering. Michele says they are branching out but staying with what they know.
“We will always keep the basic Italian,” says Michele. “We never get out of our authentic, classic Italian. We stick to that. There are a lot of Americans that expect the Fettucine Alfredo, chicken parm. They almost get scared of our menu sometimes because there is no Chicken Parmesan. But that’s not us. We will never have Alfredo sauce or parmesan like that.”
“We are being brave everyday,” says Qiana. “Even the wine list being all Italian can be scary. We have to explain what is going to be close to a California chard or cabernet. There’s a lot of education that has to happen, in an accessible way.”
For more information or reservations at Sale Pepe visit their website at Salepepemaui.com. They’re open every evening in Lahaina 5-10pm but closed on Sundays.
Old Lahaina Center
878 Front St., Lahaina