An Authentic Italian Experience

Jo McGarry
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Friday - September 08, 2006
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Sergio Mitrotti is owner, chef and artist at Café Sistina
Sergio Mitrotti is owner,
chef and artist at Café

You’d think I’d be a pretty good person to ask to lunch. I eat out all the time - constantly running between restaurants taking pictures, tasting dishes and interviewing chefs.

But on some days I’m just as lost for inspiration as anyone. My friend Vicky called to set a lunch date last week, and we ran through and dismissed a dozen restaurants before we finally decided on one. Some we deemed “too busy,” others had no parking, others didn’t offer the food we were in the mood for. I actually drove into Chinatown to go to the restaurant we finally decided upon - and then called her after 15 minutes to say there wasn’t a parking space within five blocks.

“Meet me at Café Sistina,” I finally said, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, Café Sistina - why didn’t I think of that?” she replied.

The first thing that’s important to know about lunch here is that the parking is easy and free. Pull into the First Interstate building from either King Street or Young Street and then enter the restaurant from either the side or front.

Café Sistina is an owner-occupied Italian restaurant. That’s to say Sergio Mitrotti owns it, cooks the food, invents new dishes, paints unbelievable reproductions of Michelangelo’s greatest works on the walls, chats with customers and can always be found somewhere between the bar, his scaffolding and the kitchen.

It’s very reassuring in a way. Just like the food.

The menu is divided into three sections that reflect the culinary influences of Sergio’s life thus far. His grandmother’s recipes are dishes that have remained unchanged for years. Classic, traditional Northern meat sauces, homemade sausage, rich, garlicky pesto and wonderful lasagna all come together to give an idea of some of the first dishes Sergio ever tasted at home in Turin. Try the incredibly good Eggplant Parmigiano if you want to see the difference between this and its more Americanized cousins. Mitrotti’s eggplant is soft and sweet, layered between melted slices of smoked mozzarella cheese, a robust tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The sauce is darker and more intense than the bright red, fresh-from-the-can tomato sauce you’ll find in other less authentic Italian restaurants. From Sergio’s mother’s kitchen you can taste a number of tender chicken dishes, Gnocchi Lamb Sausage, or the light and fresh Fettuccini Caprese.

From Sergio himself there are a dozen dishes that reflect his more contemporary attitude toward food.

And then there’s an overlapping of them all. The Caprese di Melanzane is from a family recipe where Sergio’s grandmother would marinade thick slices of eggplant for a year until they were ready to be eaten with fresh mozzarella. Sergio’s interpretation of the dish doesn’t take a year, but the eggplant is a perfect example of how soft and silky smooth this versatile vegetable can be. If you’ve ever tasted the almost crunchy eggplant at other restaurants where they don’t take time to either marinate or cook it thoroughly, then you’ll love this fine example.

The Linguine Puttanesca is certainly worth a try too. A rich tomato-based sauce is given strength and character by the slow cooking of anchovies, kalamata olives, capers and garlic. The result? A truly great puttanesca, a dish full of flavor, depth and personality.

Lunch here is extremely unhurried, although if you have time limitations just let the staff know and you’ll be served speedily. There are a number of soups and salads for those wishing to keep lunch light but flavorful, and the heartier dishes are great for sharing and for leftovers later in the evening.

If you’re looking for an excellent lunch spot for either a leisurely gathering with good friends and a couple of glasses of wine, or a business meeting in a unique environment, Café Sistina is a winner.

Café Sistina 1314 King St. Honolulu 808-596-0061

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