Grand Opening: Il Lupino, Royal Hawaiian Center, Waikiki
It was one of the better parties. A month after opening for business, Il Lupino, the new Old School Italian restaurant in the Royal Hawaiian Center, threw itself a grand opening wingding, packed with local celebs, beauty queens, media folk and plenty of plain old good-timers.
The bartenders whipped up Cocchi Americano aperativos with an orange twist. Wine flowed in all corners of the room.
I’d already eaten at Il Lupino, the night it opened as a matter of fact. (For the full story on that dinner, click here.)
At the time, however, I did not realize that Il Lupino’s chef was Nick Sayada (below left, at work in the kitchen).
Sayada came to Hawaii to work the late lamented Black Orchid. The black-and-blue ‘ahi he developed for the old Black Orchid is still, under various aliases, on menus all over town, and has, in fact, become an appetizer in the Ruth’s Chris chain nationwide.
At a thoroughly under-appreciated Waikiki restaurant called Cascada, he came up with such delights as his eggplant and zucchini souffle and his Mongolian lamb with pomegranates. He put his signature even on restaurants where he stopped only briefly, like Aria.
But Italian? I asked him when I caught up with him in the kitchen. "I worried," he said. "Before I started, I had such an anxiety attack that I ended up at Queen’s one night," he said. "But then I started cooking and the food, it was good, it was simple, it was Italian."
The restaurant is owned by Peter and Wolfgang Zweiner, who also own Wolfgang’s Steakhouses in New York, Los Angeles and here. "Good owners," says Sayada, who’s been through a few in his time. "They understand the agony of getting the food right."
Sayada’s crew kept pumping out bites all night, pizza, bruschetta of all varieties, little flowers of first-rate prosciutto. But the rumor murmured its through the crowd: "Those little risotto balls, you have to get one."
Actually, they’re called arancini, stuffed rice balls the size of a baseball, deep fried a golden orange. People lined the counter of the kitchen, and the waiters couldn’t get four feet into the crowd before their trays were emptied. I got the last one. It was full of flavor, finely diced meat and vegetables, oozy with mozarella in the middle. Wanted more.
Sayada gave credit for arancini to one of his sous chefs, Brian Smutny, who learned the Sicilian treat cooking in Japan.
So are they on the menu? "I think maybe after tonight, we better," he said.
Wolfgang Zweiner flew in for the occasion and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Zweiner was a head waiter at the legendary Peter Luger’s before launching his own steakhouses. His entire career has been steaks, but he apparently loves Italian.
"I always wanted a a restaurant like this," he told me. "This is only the first. First Hawaii, then New York."
Il Lupino, first level, Royal Hawaiian Center, 2233 Kalakaua Ave. (808) 922-3400, website here.