WRITTEN BY ELIZA ESCAÑO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MYKLE COYNE
MY AFFECTION FOR SALE PEPE WAS INSTANT. In 2014, barely a few weeks into their opening, the word about Maui’s brand new Italian restaurant had gotten around swiftly. Maybe it was the spirited Italian banter between the kitchen and the servers, the intoxicating scent of garlic and herbs wafting through the space, the sacks of Italian flour or the cans of San Marzano tomatoes stacked by the counter. Who knows – but something delicious was clearly happening.
Diners flocked to enjoy dishes created by Chef Michele Di Bari and his business partner and wife, Qiana Di Bari. The couple set the bar for Italian cuisine on Maui, enriching the neighborhood and our palates in the process.
Michele rolls and cuts the pasta and pizza dough every morning. He learned the art of pasta making from his mother and was schooled at La Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli (The Italian School of Pizza). His food marries locally sourced ingredients with the rich traditions he grew up with in Rozzano, Milan and his deep familial roots in southern Italy’s Lavello and Lacedonia, where the Di Baris are currently building their dream home. The cooking is simple and honest; the end-result, superb. Kauai prawns top house made grilled crostini; arancinis rest on Maui Cattle Company Bolognese; and a fresh, local catch can be found on the special most evenings.
Brooklyn-raised Qiana manages front of the house. No stranger to building a following on the laurels of authenticity and artistry, Qiana managed one of the best hip-hop groups from the genre’s 1990’s golden era, A Tribe Called Quest, before becoming a restaurateur. Her gentle demeanor, warmth and sharp wit lend a sincere hospitality to the dining room.
SALE PEPE GROWS AND BU’ONO PASTA FRESCA IS BORN
Bu’ono, you might guess, is a combination of buono and ‘ono, respectively Italian and Hawaiian for delicious. The initial launch was done in collaboration with R. Field Wine Company, the gourmet and artisanal section of Foodland Farms Lahaina and Foodland Kehalani in Wailuku. Soon, Bu’ono will be available at Whole Foods Market on O’ahu and Maui, quite a win for this family endeavor.
Three types of pasta will be in production: spaghetti rigatoni, penne and strozzapreti, which literally means priest choker as it was traditionally served as an after-mass meal where the priests supposedly overindulged on pasta. Bu’ono offerings also include vibrant marinara, and a pesto sauce that highlights beautiful basil by local growers like Kumu Farms and Oko’a Farms. The fresh pasta and sauce provide a quick, wholesome and well-crafted dinner option for a family.
While Michele credits Qiana for most of the new menu specials and big-picture ideas, Qiana is quick to deflect some shine back on her partner. “We collaborate, that’s our thing,” shared Qiana. “He’s always moving, he’s never still. There’s not a lot of time for reflection. It’s hard for me to keep up with him during the day cause he’s just flying. His speed and power are really strong. But then he’ll stop in the middle of a dash, and say, ‘I remember when I was little; we would always eat panzarotti at the beach. I think I’m going to do that today.’ And he’ll come out of the blue with something epic. It is totally reciprocal.”
TRAVELING TO ITALY INSPIRES
“We go to Italy to connect with the roots and to remember how to maintain the Italian standard,” said Qiana. “What happens in Italy is that we’ll be sitting at the most mundane table somewhere, maybe someone’s house that I’ve sat in a million times or maybe a café. And something will come out on the table and I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we show people that?’ Then we go to New York, and it gets me excited about the future.”
Italian travels are for visits to Michele’s family who now live in Ripaldina, two hours from Milan. The time is also spent sourcing better products. “There are always new products we can find,” said Michele. “Better prosciutto, better flour, better olive oil, better semolina, and that’s a big deal.”
Last summer, he spent a birthday dinner at a farm with the family, something he hadn’t done in 20 years. Sunday suppers are called pastasciutta and consist of “slow, legacy cooking of braised meat and pasta that roots the rest of the week.” Michele’s mother would make ravioli and orecchiette, and the family would spend hours eating and enjoying each other’s company. Michele’s mother holidays on Maui at times, and when she does, she can often be seen making her own special pastas for the restaurant; it’s a sight to behold.
“We work hard because we see how much people love it,” said Qiana. “We are motivated by our community, the locals and the visitors, but we want to get excited too. We want to be titillated by our creative process.”