It’s one thing to say that Italian cuisine is comfort food, and yet entirely another to experience the Italian delights created by Chef Roger Stettler at Taverna. Italiano is inherently comforting, belly-filling pastas drenched in rich cream sauces and meaty marinaras, but Stettler elevates comfort a few notches, adding elegance with the quality ingredients he likes to work with.
“The most important ingredient is love, of course,” says Settler. “After that, I would say tomato, arugula, semolina, basil, parsley and olive oil. It’s home cooking like my mother and grandmother used to cook. It’s simple, great food, comforting to any palate. It’s soul food.”
In March, Taverna opened in Kapalua, completely revamping the space that was last Village Cafe and Sweet Shop. The new look is modern but cozy–the quintessential zone to settle in for a good meal. The exterior architecture is rustic, reminiscent of a log cabin. The dining room is spacious, with cushioned, communal bench seating here and there, which adds to the family feel. The floor plan is open–you can gaze across the entire space–but your own table somehow remains intimate.
Tomato is a primary here, but the devil is in the details. The tomato soup is killer, I wish I could take jars of it with me. The tomato is in the minestrone, meatball, lasagna, pizza and caprese. Stettler and the team at Taverna do awe-inspiring things with the tomato.
“It’s real simple,” he says. “I start with great local tomatoes and quality ingredients. I just don’t over-think it and I don’t rush it.”
The fresh Taverna woodstone oven-baked house bread is something my daughter always looks forward to. In fact, it’s one of her favorite places to eat. What I like is that even though there are enough familiar dishes here, there are also plenty of exciting exotic things to try as well.
The crudo changes daily–last time I visited it was a smoked salmon served over a hearts of palm salad. The seafood salad has also been a favorite since they opened. It’s full of generous portions of cooked and chilled lobster, fish, tako, shrimp and scallops, with some greens and a white balsamic emulsion. The fried capers add a bit of light, crisp acid.
The menu is organized into antipasti (apps, soups, salads), share plates (pizza, meatballs, olives, artisan cold cuts and cheese), primi (pasta and risotto) and piatti principali (mains). My advice is to give yourself time to graze, as there are so many great things to try on the menu. The pizza bianca is one of my favorite share plates, with its panchetta bits and roasted pear meeting over arugula and gorgonzola. The fritto misto is also popular.
“Our most popular dishes are tomato soup, Taverna lasagna, spaghetti carbonara, seafood salad, carpaccio, Margherita Pizza, branzino and ossobuco,” says Settler. “But everyone has to try the lasagna, my grandmother’s recipe. I watched her making it as a young boy and she taught me how to make it.”
When it comes to pastas and mains, I’m irrevocably drawn the specials, so don’t rule those out either. The pan roasted branzino is a gorgeous plate of fish with fingerling potatoes, broccolini, lemon butter and Italian parsley.
The Taverna team has also done a tremendous job with their cocktails, wine and beer. They have beautiful hand-crafted cocktails that even the biggest spirits geeks can appreciate, as well as making some of the most approachable libations that pair remarkably well with everything on the menu. What I like to do is gravitate toward a spirit and pluck my cocktail from the list that way. Their negroni menu never disappoints me–bringing spirits and liqueurs together in one concoction is tricky, but they make it look easy and attractive at the same time. You can also get refreshed by their bubbly spritzer menu, which has six different cocktails on it.
“Taverna is a great neighborhood restaurant–comforting, satisfying and affordable,” says Stettler. “They love to see that satisfying smile on everyone’s faces when they leave.”
Taverna gives us a lot to love. On Mondays from 5-6pm, kama`aina can score half off their entrees. Wednesdays, everyone gets half off wine by the bottle, and half off wines by the glass at bar. Tuesdays, try the three-course lasagne dinner for $35, and on Sundays try the slow-roasted prime rib for $29 with mashed potatoes and asparagus. Thursdays through Sundays after 9pm, their industry social features $9 specialty cocktails, $2 off beer and 25 percent off wines by the glass.
2000 Village Rd., Kapalua
Photos: Sean M. Hower