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Welcome to Mama Mānoa, Where Every Pizza Has a Story

Almost every dish has the name of a University of Hawaiʻi or Island athlete or coach next to it—and the location is reminiscent of a baseball stadium. Hearty Italian offerings and double-size chicken wings help hit it out of the park.


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Pizzas at Mama Mānoa are named after local athletes—one of the many charms of this new spot by UH.
Photos: Courtesy of Mama Mānoa

 

Every week we’re reminded of the realities of running a restaurant in Honolulu, with closures of old favorites and brave new startups alike. The twist in Mama Mānoa’s case is it starts with a closing and finishes with a double happy ending—a survival story and a startup.

 

“It was just employee issues, we’re just short-handed,” says chef and co-owner Serg Arellano about why he had to shutter the Waimānalo branch of his namesake Mexican restaurant, Serg’s Mexican Kitchen. Near-full employment is hitting hard all over town. But even after that painful bit of belt-tightening, things weren’t getting any better, so he was about to throw in the towel on the Mānoa Serg’s, too.

 

Enter Drew Santos, president of Admor HVAC and 30-year booster of University of Hawai‘i, particularly its sports teams. “I was over at Serg’s—he wanted to make me and my wife Italian [food] for our anniversary—and we went and sat at a park bench and he told me he was going to shut down the operation.”

 

But, wait, we asked: You went to Serg’s Mexican to talk about your dinner’s Italian menu?

 

“I like to eat, I tell you that,” says Santos, who, in fact, has his own food blog, greateatshawaii.blogspot.com. “See, I knew Serg from when we’ve done events together for the University of Hawai‘i Foundation. We’ve teamed up to do tailgate parties at football games to boost school spirit and get people to come to the games. He would do Italian for those.”

 

It turns out Arellano’s been cooking con amore for decades. “I got started in the restaurant business in Las Vegas, where I was general manager and chef,” he explains. “I worked for the Rispolis, people from New York. Jerry [Rispoli] was full-on 100 percent Italian, and I learned the recipes his mother had passed on to his wife, Susan—how to cook really good Italian.”

 

Back to that park bench. “Drew said, ‘Wait a minute,’” says Arellano. “‘Why don’t I become your partner and we’ll do delicious food?’ And he came up with the idea of paying tribute to the UH athletes and the athletes of the state.”

 

Santos doesn’t just support UH—he speaks fluent booster: “I said to Serg, this is a beautiful place in Mānoa; there should be a place here that does something for UH and the university and Mānoa. There’s such a broad talent pool here.”

 

And that’s how I found myself sitting down to an Akebono Meatball Pizza—the smaller 12-inch size, not the 18-incher—facing 16 meatball quarters bathing in a red sauce straight out of Goodfellas ($15/$28). Meatballs have been a thing ever since Carmine’s in New York’s Times Square launched the gargantuan-portion boom in the 1990s. Because they require cooking, they’re also a good taste test-bed; these were succulent, not over-seasoned.

 

And you can order them as a side, or in the Konishiki sub (slathered in “Italian gravy and melted mozzarella,” $14). By the way, that “gravy” is a tipoff that these guys are wise to Italians’ favorite linguistic controversy. Gravied or sauced, Mama Mānoa’s so proud of theirs they make everything meatball half-off on Mondays—which reduces the price of my sumo-worthy pie from $15 to $7.50. Did I finish it? I’ll take the Fifth. But I wanted to.

 

My partner did devour most of the Rell Sunn ($15/$28), a classic margarita with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. “This is great,” she said, flatly; the fact that she grew up competing with Sunn in surf contests did not influence her opinion. (Sunn thrashed her.)

 

But she still needed help to finish the job. These pies aren’t your craft pies that you can polish off in a couple of bites. They come loaded, and they’re not bready, either, like franchise versions. The crust is thin but not insubstantial, riding out of the oven on cornmeal ball bearings, filled to the brim, where appropriate, with sauce and cheese. 

 

In fact, the Klum Gym is just sauce and cheese. A quick survey of some of the food-and-personality pairings: Marcus Mariota (barbecue chicken, red onions, cilantro), Michelle Wie (spinach, garlic, pecorino), Ma‘a Tanuvasa (sausage, ham, pepperoni, bacon), Benny Agbayani (pepperoni, mushroom, olives), Nick Rolovich (pastrami and grilled onions).

 

From left, Ma‘a Tanuvasa with his meat-centric pizza and Nick Rolovich with his pizza topped with pastrami and grilled onions.

 

The vegetarian pizza—named after soccer phemon NatashA Kai—with tomatoes, bell peppers and olives.

 

“I don’t know where it comes from,” says Santos, of his ability to make matches like these. “I’ve always been a good marketer, I do my own TV commercials. When Marcus Mariota was here, he said, yeah, barbecue chicken is his favorite pizza.”

 

Others are slam dunks. “Greg Salas is of Mexican ancestry,” so he gets a carne asada, onion, cilantro, avocado salsa, queso and sour cream pizza. “Rich Miano is Italian”—hence the sandwich stuffed with prosciutto, salami, capiocola, mortadella, provolone, lettuce, tomato and onion. Dave Shoji gets his sandwich with teriyaki chicken, grilled onions and mozzarella with Sriracha mayo. The Rainbow Warrior pizza is a decathlete: kālua pork, Portuguese sausage, char siu, spam, onions and pineapple ($16/$35).

 

Mama Mānoa earns the rest of its tagline, “Pizza Wings & Greens,” with a diversity of salads and some seriously plump chicken wings. You can get a simple $5 salad of Mānoa greens, a Caesar ($9), a loaded kale salad ($12), a turkey avocado ($14), a Mama-Mex ($10) and a caprese ($10).

 

The wall’s menu pulls no punches, claiming the best wings in the state. I asked the pizza-thrower which variety to try—buffalo, buffalo lemon, barbecue, chipotle barbecue, kalbi, lemon pepper, roasted garlic, honey mustard … or plain.

 

“Mango habanero,” he said without hesitation. (Wings are six for $15 and it goes up from there to a bucket of 50 for $110.)

 

The wings are advertised as “no antibiotics, hormones or steroids”—the latter important for athletes who might be called on for drug testing (and I’m not sure I’m kidding)—yet are huge, meaty and unfatty. Like today’s athletes, come to think of it. The habaneros brought sweaty-forehead heat but the tropic sweetness of the mango glaze offered a refuge.

 

Wings usually bore me after one or two. Here, the standard order of six ($15) seemed like a dinner entrée of unusual and welcome generosity. “That big double wing sets us apart,” says Santos.

 

Mama Mānoa means business with its wings.

 

The location—across from Mānoa Marketplace—and layout elevate the joint. Serg’s Mexican Kitchen, which still operates next door in a separate space, still has its picnic tables and flapping rain-fly roof (and quite good Mexican). It’s utilitarian.

 

Not so Mama’s. At first the space may mystify—it’s next to Serg’s, but I didn’t remember anything so nice in the spot before. The restaurant has an attractive white gabled front and, on the side, a barnlike covered patio and open-air herb garden with a waterfall. You’ll want to sit outside in the light and fresh Mānoa breeze, protected from any sprinkles by a real roof. That’s also where the three 65-inch TVs are, tuned to the sporting events du jour.

 

Inside the restaurant, which is filled with UH memorabilia.

 

Can you tell the owners love sports?

 

The back space of the restaurant features outdoor seating, where you can play cornhole.

 

At the back of the garden, above the waterfall, the “GO BOWS” painted high on the weathered plank wall resembles left field in some idyllic Field of Dreams baseball park. The brick-faced wall of the patio has a hint of Fenway Park to it. But that, mercifully, is it for sporting memorabilia, at least indoors. Inside there’s a strip of wall devoted to photos, clippings, art and more—but even that feels understated given Santos’ slavish devotion to all things sports. The way the whole thing seems to have sprung up overnight made me wonder if Shoeless Joe Jackson had wandered out of the hills to lend a hand.

 

“This thing just hit me like a brick, the design, the concept,” says Santos, who came to Hawai‘i from Long Beach, California, more than 30 years ago. “I’ve always been around eating and drinking. We had a Mexican restaurant 15 years ago, in Aloha Tower. It was a nightmare, just learning the business.” Now he’s well established. “I’m known as the Fujitsu man.” He enjoys making a difference, contributing not just money but going hands-on, and not only to sports programs but to the UH School of Medicine as well—a portion of the proceeds of Mama Mānoa will go to the Cooling Cancer Fund and a dollar from every Rainbow Warrior pizza will go to a UH scholarship in the name of Mason Kekoa, the child of an Admor HVAC employee who passed away at 8 months.

 

Saving a corner of the neighborhood, making it bloom, comes naturally for Santos. “When I met Serg and his wife, I said, maybe I can help him out and his community here. Sports is the only game in town in Hawai‘i,” he says.

 

My one concern was the absence of a sports-bar staple: beer. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet. It’s hard to imagine looking at a left-field wall without a cold one to go with your Benny Agbayani.

 

But even here, Santos and Arellano have gone extra innings. Not only is Mama Mānoa BYOB, but, says Santos: “We have our stainless-steel coolers that ice your drink for you. Just bring your six-pack or bottle of wine and we’ll roll it right up to your table.”

 

2740 E. Mānoa Road, Monday—Saturday 11 a.m.—9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.—8 p.m., (808) 888-4392, mamamanoa.com.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE

 

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