Thursday, November 12, 2009

Romance on a Dime

When it comes to romance, Italian food pretty much corners the market.    I think that the lynchpin was the scene from Lady and the Tramp, where slurping on two ends of the same noodle inevitably leads to an unwitting kiss.   It is probably one of the most romantic scenes in film history.   Stars twinkling overhead.  Candlelit dinner for two.   Italian serenade from a beautiful tenor voice, Bella Notte.   That little animated scene set the standard for all romantic scenes to come in our lives, especially since we were so young when viewing it.     And it cemented the role of Italian food as the cuisine of romance.

So you've got a burning date.  You're clean shaven, all dressed up with all the buttons actually buttoned, you've bothered to comb and spray your hair.   Where do you take your date?    Well, probably the most dominant Italian restaurant in Hawaii would have to be Assaggio.   Admittedly, they are gorgeous.   There is nothing like going there, and ordering a real caesar salad.   I'm not talking about anything like a bed of lettuce, a few pieces of grilled chicken and croutons with so called "creamy caesar" dressing on top, like you would get at Costco.   I'm talking about the waiter rolling out a cart and doing the table side mixing of egg, anchovies, garlic and lemon.  A real caesar, with that little bit of bite, and the strong pungent flavor that a real caesar has.  All of their pastas are wonderful.   I particularly like their Fresh Clams Casino.   But the thing is, you have to pay for all of that ambiance.    The well dressed waiters and fine linens.   The shiny glassware and the the ambient lighting.   The whole experience is added to your bill.   So, what happens if you're a little high school kid trying to take your girlfriend out on a date, and simply can't afford the bill at Assagio?    You go to my favorite Italian restaurant, Verbano Ristorante Italiano.

Ironically, neither Italian restaurant comes from strictly Italian heritage.    Both of these restaurants also claim some Vietnamese heritage.  It never shows on their menu, the way that Angelo Pietro is actually a fusion of Japanese and Italian flavors.   But the very slight influence of the Vietnamese tradition makes the style of Italian in these restaurants distinct.  Because of the popularity of these two restaurants, Italian food in Hawaii in general has evolved into this style.   So whenever eating at an Italian restaurant, say in New York, whose roots are strictly old country Italian, I am always slightly thrown off by the difference.

Verbano has 3 different locations, each one with a slightly different menu.   The location I first fell in love with was on the restaurant strip on Waialae Ave in Kaimuki (next to Big City Diner).   I was really heartbroken when I drove past recently, and their location was being renovated for another restaurant.   But driving around the neighborhood, I was suddenly relieved to find that they had simply moved around the corner to Koko Head Ave.   I also really like the location on the corner of King and Keeaumoku (next to Bank of Hawaii).   The menu at that location is a little nicer, in that they openly state how you can mix and match whichever type of pasta you want with whichever type of sauce.  You can make that substitution in Kaimuki as well, but it is more of a special request and not written on the menu.   The Kaimuki location is however, slightly prettier, with shinier glasses and crisper linens.   The Keaaumoku location features some interesting artwork (one painting there always scares my wife as she thinks it looks like a dead body floating in a pond).  They're also a little more dimly lit, but then everything by candlelight is pretty anyway.   The last time I was there, they were also playing a beautiful Diana Krall CD, that just perfectly finished the atmosphere for them.   But the two best things about going to Verbano, are that they are much less crowded than Assaggio (meaning you're much more likely to get a walk-in table, especially on a special occasion), and they are about half the price (around the $10 - $12 per person price range).

Carbonara with Angel Hair Pasta at Verbano Ristorante Italiano
(Sorry.  It's almost impossible to take a photo with a cell phone by candlelight.)

To me though, atmosphere and price aside, I simply like Verbano's Italian food the best.   It may not be entirely authentic to what you would find in Rome, or Sicily, or Sardinia, but it is our own style of Italian food, and it tastes fantastic.   Verbano makes a really mean pesto sauce.   The herbs they use are perfectly balanced with the olive oil.    They also make a yummy anchovie olio  (I've got a real thing for anchovies and they're so hard to find around here).    But my single favorite dish at Verbano is their carbonara sauce.  They usually serve it with fettucini, but I prefer it with the more delicate angel hair pasta.   The angel hair seems to trap more of the sauce than the fettucini does.   Their carbonara re-defines the word rich.   It's incredibly creamy and thoroughly buttery.   In fact, about half way through, you can almost imagine your arteries constricting, but it just tastes so good, you can't stop.    Add to that incredible rich, creaminess, a large portion of smokey bacon and diced onions, and you've got an incredible dish that will blissfully kill you when you're through.  

Even though I'm no longer in high school, and I do enjoy going to Assaggio once in a while, it is Verbano that will always remain my favorite Italian restaurant in Hawaii.  Being able to afford to take a date there, has given me a chest full of romantic memories and bella nottes of my own.  The best legacy an Italian restaurant can bestow. 

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