Chef Keith Endo’s Italian Love Affair

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 04, 2011
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Chef endo with the chitarra (pasta guitar) he uses to cut fresh noodles at Vino. Jo McGarry photo

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about eating wherever Keith Endo is cooking is that his personal culinary journey has been obvious on almost every plate he’s put out during the past 10 years.

Endo was a sushi chef at Sansei on Maui when I first met him, making the kind of fun, colorful sushi that D.K. Kodama created in his first restaurant. But while Sansei made waves and ushered in an exciting era of fun, flirty food to an otherwise fairly traditional arena, it wasn’t Japanese food that helped Endo make his mark. Surprisingly, it’s Italian dishes that are the cause of the many sold-out nights at Vino at restaurant row.

From soft, buttery, hand-made tagliatelle and linguine, fresh bread that crackles as you break its warm crust apart and fragrant, to light sauces that accompany dishes such as Dungeness crab “alla chittara” (where fresh linguine is tossed with crab, jalapeno, basil and topped with a baby corn and lobster/uni beurre blanc), or a simple Penne Pasta rigate, where rustic fare of fennel sausage and local tomatoes combine with pasta and Swiss chard in harmonious flavor and color, the food at Vino is so good, and the wine pairings so exceptional that somehow it’s all the more delightful to know that Endo is a Hilo native who started cooking at an early age to “keep out of trouble.”

He might have started life with sushi, but it’s Italian food that has captured his heart.

Endo has traveled to learn pasta-making from a master, learned how to make perfect cioppino from the famed alioto family of San Francisco, and last year he spent time in Italy wandering the daily markets in search of inspiration.

“It’s not always practical for a restaurant to buy small amounts of fresh food,” says Endo, “but it’s what I wanted to do after I saw how people in Italy eat.”

Today he shops for Vino at weekly farmers markets and buys from small momand-pop farms around the island, ensuring a seasonal - though not always predictable - supply of fresh, island-grown food.

With a seasonal menu - especially one that relies heavily on small farms - there’s always the risk that dishes listed on the menu may not be available, and sometimes a dish that’s featured in spring is never seen again once summer dawns. Be thankful for small mercies, because Vino has established a must-have menu that’s growing longer by the season. My guess is the next dish to join the ranks of sublime signatures at the restaurant row bistro - alongside Truffled Mac and cheese, the aforementioned cioppino and crispy Whole Branzino - will be Big Island Smoked Pork with Tagliatelle and Farm Egg. This gorgeous, texturally beautiful marriage of crisped, smoked pork, locally grown broccoli rabe, jalapenos and Hamakua mushrooms is served on handmade tagliatelle then sprinkled with olive oil and topped with a fresh local egg; as the silky Ligurian olive oil and egg yolk meet and mix on the plate, they make a natural, golden sauce with which to coat the pasta.

And while the food in all its rustic loveliness is a joy, back in the kitchen Endo is on a quest for his next best dish, letting ingredients speak for themselves.

“Homemade pasta and fresh bread,” he says with a shy grin. “How could anyone go wrong?”

Happy eating! Restaurant Row
Open Wednesday-Saturday evenings only. 524-8466


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