A Piece Of Italy In Honolulu

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 13, 2005
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Sergio Mitrotti offers authentic
Italian dishes and cooking classes
at Cafe Sistina

When you come to another country to live, you generally do either one of two things: Leave your own culture behind and embrace the new, or bring as much of your own culture with you, hoping to somehow blend old and new together.

Sergio Mitrotti falls, quite definitely, into the latter category.

Walk into his beautiful restaurant, Café Sistina on South King Street, and you will be forgiven for thinking you have been transported to Italy. Sergio has been re-creating his little piece of home for almost two decades in Honolulu, and there are still people who walk in amazed to see and taste his work. He’s part artist — he has recreated sections of the Sistine Chapel on the walls of his restaurant — and part chef — he is a Renaissance man with a true passion to share his culture.

Born and raised in the ancient city of Turin, Sergio grew up surrounded by art, beauty and food. Many of the recipes at Café Sistina reflect dishes he ate growing up. Indeed the menu itself is divided into three sections that he likes to call “The Classics (grandmother), The Contemporary (mother) and The Cutting Edge (himself).”

Hawaii has dozens of Italian restaurants. Add to them the number of American, Chinese and contemporary restaurants that have Italian dishes on the menu and there are hundreds. But you can count on one hand the number of Italian restaurants in Honolulu that are owned by Italian chefs. These are the places we should go when we want to taste food that is not just “Italian” but regional, generational and inspirational. Almost anyone can make spaghetti sauce. But who can make Puttanesca, lively and inspiring in its depth and dark character? The novice can make a pleasant Eggplant Parmesan, but who can create Caprese di Melanzane, born of a family recipe that calls for eggplant to be marinated a whole year? And while Sergio understands that cross-cultural appreciation of art and music can be learned by some, he thinks that somehow it’s different with food.

“Anyone can read something from a cookbook and learn to do it,” he says, “but unless you have the love and the passion that goes with the heritage you have nothing. Just a recipe.” So with that spirit of sharing he’s about to begin a series of cooking classes that will reflect his country’s heritage as well as his own passion.

Regular Café Sistina customers have already signed up for the long-awaited classes, and Mitrotti plans to show students how to create many different dishes from a similar base. The classes will include a hands-on demonstration and lunch.

Also in the works are a series of wine dinners that will reflect the many different regions of his homeland.

Ask Sergio about his art and he will modestly say he thinks of himself as a decorator and not a great artist. Ask him about the period he chooses to copy and he will tell you the Renaissance period because it reflects a time of change. Ask him why he cooks, and the answer is immediate. “This is the food of my heart.”

He touches his hand to his chest and then waves his arm around his beautiful restaurant; “This is my culture, my heritage. It’s something I want to be able to share with people.”

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