The early evening Brings a golden glow That lingers above Rows of norfolk pines Along nearby office Road. A quick turn leads to Kapalua’s neighborhood trattoria, Taverna. Before the night rolls in, the room is already packed with the usual hungry suspects. Having recently celebrated its first year milestone, the future is promising. West Maui’s food-centric crowd can’t resist the allure of meticulously prepared Italian cuisine and garden-to-glass libations in a setting that is polished yet low-key.
Taverna boasts a gorgeously renovated, open space framed by dark wood panels, smart lighting and floor-to-ceiling shelf partitions that lend a handsome look. While the soft greenery from the resort’s golf course and clusters of lush hiking trails provide a stunning vista to enjoy, the real eye candy is the concrete bar from where some of Maui’s most skilled bartenders create.
Bar manager Tara Fontaine handcrafts beautiful elixirs of syrups and shrubs, presses fresh juices, picks exquisite garnishes and, yes, prepares special ice cubes that make some of the most extraordinary cocktails. Mai tais are earnestly infused with hazelnut orgeat and house falernum; and the negronis come with new, playful twists, at times swapping out gin for bourbon or tequila. In One Way Ticket,
Fontaine finesses Buffalo Trace bourbon with aperol, lemon and vanilla. Egg white is added to the mix and shaken with a spring coil to emulsify. The frothy peach-colored drink is poured into a gimlet and spritzed with Peychauds bitters atop a flower-shaped stencil. It tastes as sublime as it looks. Followed with an amouse bouche of mushroom arancini on herbaceous arugula pesto, and dinner has properly commenced.
Although the space has gone through a few reincarnations, Taverna is a fairly new endeavor from a couple of industry vets. Partners Chris Kaiwi and executive chef Roger Stettler hit all the classic marks of Italian cuisine with a few welcome detours (Taverna burger on focaccia with crinkles of pancetta and smoked mozza? Yes, please!). The menu is well-rounded, flitting from roasted tomato-fennel soup to a rich crab manicotti to a pizza, perfectly crisped on the edges and topped with roasted pear, bechamel and Gorgonzola dolce. Eight types of pasta are rolled in-house daily by sous chef Chelsee Anderson including the orecchiette with broccolini and salsiccia or Italian sausage laden with garlic and anchovy. Pan-roasted branzino with lemon brown butter and parsley is simplicity at its best, and the ossobuco with gremolata is braised to tender perfection and rests on velvety carnaroli risotto. Open until midnight on some days, Taverna is quite possibly the best place for a late-night rendezvous on this side of the Valley Isle.
Chef Roger almost needs no introduction. Having helmed coveted resort hotels in Thailand, Singapore, the Virgin Islands, and most recently, the impeccable Four Seasons Resort and Spa in Wailea, we know that the kitchen is in good hands. Stettler opened Taverna at the heels of another restaurant venture, Cow Pig Bun, a cheeky gastro pub in Kihei known to host spirited “knife fights” amongst chef peers, the kind where no injuries are sustained, surprise ingredients are involved and judges weigh in on dishes made on the fly.
Stettler grew up in Switzerland and, in many ways, Taverna’s menu is a return to his roots, a wonderful homage to his Italian mother and grandmother’s cooking. The lasagna in particular is inspired by his grandma’s recipe. “She usually stood in the kitchen for hours making her sauces,” shares Stettler. “She always said that you can’t force the making of the sauces, that it takes time and you want to make sure it simmers away very slowly, only this way will you get the full flavor into the dish. When she used to make the tomato sauce we would always try it with a piece of a day-old Italian white bread, that was how she determined if the sauce was ready or not.”
His grandma was protective of her kitchen and recipes, but he discovered how much he enjoyed cooking and spent much time helping in the kitchen, patiently learning the family’s culinary traditions. “To this day, we cook together when I visit them in Italy. Everything evolves around food and family and it always happens in the kitchen, that in itself was the motivation for me to pursue this as a career.”
While Kaiwi’s roots are firmly planted in Hawai‘i, his passion for Italian cuisine has taken him to a culinary sabbatical even before opening Taverna. At the time, he was a managing partner at Pineapple Grill, another Kapalua institution. “I have always had the desire to experience the rolling country hills of Tuscany, visit and experience the seafood display at the Rialto Market in Venice, visit the Roman ruins in Rome and live, albeit for a week, the coastal lifestyle of Portofino, Amalfi and the Cinque Terre region,” he says. “We stayed a week at a villa in Tuscany and attended a cooking school understanding the Tuscan region and its cuisine.” During their stay, he learned to make balsamic vinegar, fed the villa’s pigs and chickens, harvested vegetables from the garden for the class and handpicked Sangiovese grapes.
Kaiwi’s love for the culture reflects in the exuberant and well-studied wine pairings that flowed from Provence’s Whispering Angel ros?—a clean and fruity expression of Grenache, Rolle, Cinsault and Syrah—to Langhe’s richer varietals like Nebbiolo from the legendary Giovanni Rosso estate—complex and weighty enough to match the more robust mains, yet still bright and uplifting with delicious notes of cherries to carry you through dessert.
On my last visit, my friend Heidi and I enjoyed a tasting menu created for a private party. Of all the lovely dishes, one stood out—a pan-seared mahi on a square of lemon risotto cake, which rests on a vibrant basil cream sauce, and topped with slithers of crisped fennel. The dish danced elegantly with a dry Pieropan Soave Classico, a nuanced and almost smoky white wine made from Garganega grapes grown from volcanic terroir. Later, Chef Roger happily shared that the dish made the summer menu with the fish being swapped for the day’s fresh catch. Lemon risotto cake, we shall meet again.
After a sumptuous feast, there’s not much room left except for delicate bites of cannoli with the ends dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed pistachios to round up the meal in classic Italian fashion.
Taverna Maui, 2000 Village Road, Lahaina, (808) 667-CIAO or tavernamaui.com