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New Italian Restaurant: Bernini Honolulu


Remarkable: The Vongole Bianco, clams in white wine sauce, at Bernini Honolulu, a new Italian eatery on Waimanu Street.

John Heckathorn

Just over a week ago, Bernini Honolulu opened in the Waimanu Street space once occupied by the Sweet Nothings bakery.

It's remarkably stylish, especially for a place that appears to have been done on a budget.  Most of the money went into great black leather chairs, some of the most comfortable seats I've plunked myself into in a long while. 

We asked about the small frames on the wall, containing what looked, on closer inspection, like crinkled foil, some of it charred.

"Oh, that's 'art,'" said one of the restaurant staff, making the quote marks in the air with her fingers.  "So simple and it looks great," said the friend I brought to dinner.  "I should do that."

The food, fortunately, has has some real art to it as well. 

Like most of the rest of the world, Japan loves Italian food, and is serious about getting it right.  Chef Kengo Matsumoto studied in Northern Italy before opening three eateries in Tokyo.

His appetizer special was aku on a melange of lightly pickled vegetables with a salad of Nalo greens (left).

The fish was deftly handled, rich with charred grill flavors on the outside, raw and sweet on the inside, perked up by the accompaniment of the fresh tomatoes, peppers and onion in a deft dressing the restaurant called a ravigote, though technically I think it was a vinaigrette.

Matsumoto's Honolulu partner, Motoyo Koyata, dropped by the table, a little apologetic that the appetizer was not made, as it usually is, with seared ahi.  "Chef went to the fish market today, and thought the aku was fresh and good." 

Not everyone would have the nerve to substitute aku for ahi, but Matsumoto apparently has an eye for fish.

Equally compelling as the appetizer was our pasta, nice plump clams in white wine sauce. 

This dish was far better than it had to be.  The sauce was silky and rich, coating each strand of al dente spaghetti.  We ate every singles strand to sop up as much of the sauce as possible.  What was in it?  Wine, garlic, olive oil, of course.  But what else?

Matsumoto was shorthanded and busy in the kitchen, but I finally got up and asked him his secret.  "The secret, the butter," he said.  Isn't it always?

Then pizza!  It seemed odd that a  sit-down eatery with black leather chairs would have an 18-item pizza menu.  But Bernini is serious about pizza, so much so that each arrives at the table ceremoniously, on a chrome cake stand (right).

The kitchen's equipped with a gleaming WoodStone pizza oven to turn out real Italian style pizza.  The thin, light crust is cooked nearly done, comes back out of the oven.

Then the ingredients—in our case proscuitto and Nalo Farms arugula—get flashed at high heat, just two minutes in the oven, so they arrive at the table warm, but still fresh, the arugula just barely wilted.

It's a perfect take on pizza, one that lets the ingredients themselves shine.

For dessert, there's a Japanese-style panna cotta, covered with a fresh fruit-white wine glee.

All of this is reasonably priced, pizzas and pastas about $20 or less.

This is a restaurant worth finding on its side street near Ala Moana Center.  Since people are always asking me about this, the restaurant also has private dining rooms, including one that holds only six for your next dinner party.

Bernini Honolulu, 1218 Waimanu Street, (808) 591-8400, BerniniHonolulu.com

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