Going beyond the menu

Jo McGarry
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Friday - April 18, 2008
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Born in Turin, Sergio Mitrotti brings a taste of his homeland to Hawaii
Born in Turin, Sergio Mitrotti brings a taste of his homeland to Hawaii

When creativity and artistic ability come together on a restaurant menu, you can be sure that the food will be inspiring. But as any artist knows, finding one’s muse is not always easy.

For Sergio Mitrotti, the owner of Café Sistina, a new enthusiasm for traditional dishes was sparked by a customer.

“I was asked by an older Italian lady if I would make rabbit for her,” he says, “and, of course, I did.”

Pleasing a customer is nothing new for the chef/artist/designer, but what Sergio found in the kitchen was a new desire to create dishes from his heritage.

“When I started to cook the rabbit - and then tripe because someone else asked for that - I started to really enjoy myself,” he says “Going through the process of cooking this food is a real part of Italian cuisine.”

Since then,Sergio has been asked frequently to prepare tripe, rabbit and octopus in the “Italian way.”

“Rabbit is a wonderful dish,” he enthuses, “but, of course, it’s not something you can force on people by putting it on the menu. I’m happy to let people know that I will do it by request.”

Over the years, Sergio has battled a local indifference of sorts toward authentic Italian food, and despite a menu that reflects both his mother’s and his grandmother’s favorite recipes, he has, at times, been frustrated by his own menu.

Caprese Salad at Café Sistina: fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil
Caprese Salad at Café Sistina: fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil

“Of course it’s flattering that people like the food and that they don’t want anything to change,“he says. “But my memories and my roots and my heritage are all tied up with cooking, so it’s important to me to be creating dishes from my background and not just making spaghetti and meatballs or what people think of as Italian food.”

The fact that Sergio’s uniquely rustic dishes like tripe and rabbit are not on the menu has already contributed to a demand.

“People are already calling about the rabbit,” he says, as word spreads. Guests need to make a reservation for a minimum of four people and give Sergio notice before they are treated to the “off the menu"menu. If you really want to try something special, ask for the octopus Italian-style.Sergio believes his to be as tender as any you may have tasted.

“I have challenged a Japanese sushi chef to an octopus cook-off in the past,“he says.“I believe I can make octopus that would surprise most people by its tenderness and texture. Italians cook octopus the best way.”

But don’t worry if you’re one of the regular customers who visits Café Sistina for the excellent spicy puttanesca sauce with linguine or the tender veal piccata - they won’t be going anywhere.

“It’s almost impossible to change our menu,” says Sergio. “I sit down with our staff and begin to tell them about new dishes,and they all protest and tell me what we can’t possibly take off the menu. They know that the customers will not be happy.”

Occasionally though, next to the gorgeous gorgonzola ravioli and the penne arrabiata, a new dish sneaks in and becomes a favorite.

“The pappardelle with venison ragu is fairly new, and people love that,” he says.

What’s happened, in a way, at Café Sistina over the 18 years Sergio has been there is what happens in Italian homes around the globe - everybody wants to eat their favorite dishes again and again. In creating an atmosphere that’s casual and friendly, Sergio has given people a taste not just of Italian food, but of Italian life.

“I’m trying to give people a taste of my culture,” he says.

Café Sistina
1314 S. King St.

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