First Look: Mad Bene, a New Italian-American Restaurant in Kapolei
Bao Tran, formerly of Major Food Group in New York, helms the stylish and spacious eatery.
Photos: Martha Cheng
Mad Bene, like many New Yorkers and Italians, has strong opinions. Among them: New Jersey tomatoes are better than San Marzanos from Italy, and Sicilian olive oil is the best, which is why it’s the only olive oil Mad Bene uses.
It’s even incorporated into gelato, which you should definitely try in Mad Bene’s sundae ($11), alongside scoops of pistachio and Luxardo cherry gelato, crowned with caramelized bananas—the hip marriage of a modern spumoni and banana split.
Mad Bene has one of those rare menus where I want to try everything, and I’ll be making multiple drives out to Kapolei until I do. It’s an impulse reinforced by a first visit yielding a balanced old-fashioned with a house-made amaro ($12); an ‘ahi carpaccio ($15) with thin slices of ‘ahi fanned over an anchovy aioli, dotted with fried bread bits and capers; and paccheri arrabbiata ($17), with house-made paccheri pasta—wide, chewy, floppy tubes—in a just-spicy-enough pepperoni and tomato sauce.
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Clockwise from top: MB old-fashioned, margherita pizza, paccheri arrabbiata
Mad Bene (“bene” means “good” in Italian) opened in November in the former Eating House 1849 space in Kapolei Commons. It’s helmed by Bao Tran, formerly a chef de cuisine at Santina, part of Major Food Group in New York, and backed by Jin Hong and Henry Yoon, business partners who bought Café Duck Butt in Kaka‘ako nine years ago. In the time since, the duo more than doubled Café Duck Butt’s revenue, according to Jennifer Akiyoshi, the COO of DB Restaurant Group, and opened DB Grill in Kapolei Commons. I can’t think of any Hawai‘i restaurant group with options as diverse as a Korean karaoke dive bar and a spacious, well-designed Italian-New York restaurant. The common thread I see: Both are as light-hearted and fun as their names.
O‘ahu’s Italian offerings are already uniquely eclectic: Italian-Japanese (Angelo Pietro), Italian-American by way of Vietnamese chefs trained in Hawai‘i’s Italian restaurants (Assaggio, La Cucina), Italian-Californian with hints of Hawaiian (Town), and many more variations. And now, Mad Bene adds its own flavor, equal parts Italian and Manhattan.
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Take the pizza: Neapolitan at first glance, but crisp in crust and generous in toppings, which range from a classic margherita (with those Jersey tomatoes) to NYC pepperoni pizza to Mad Garlic, which features garlic six ways. That might seem over the top, the way Duck Butt’s watermelon soju is, but it’s not, despite the garlic in forms including raw grated cloves and a garlic bechamel (pizzas $15 to $18).
The crudites ($13) are more exciting than the vegetable party platter you’re used to, consisting of fennel, carrots, zucchini and crunchy jicama shaved into ribbons and showered with dill, basil and ranch dressing, showing a care for vegetables that’s as much de rigueur of new Italian spots as their shipped-from-Naples ovens.
Pizza and pasta are the emphasis at Mad Bene, and I’m returning for the rigatoni tako and linguine vongole with nduja (like a spreadable, spicy salami). But I’ll also be back for the pork spare ribs, which, in a sweet and sour glaze, sound more Panda Express but are made with an Italian agrodolce syrup, proving that in flavors from Italy to America, perhaps we have more in common than we realize.
Open Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., 4450 Kapolei Parkway, #540, Kapolei, (808) 744-7400, madbene.com
READ MORE STORIES BY MARTHA CHENG