Prima: New Italian Restaurant in Kailua

The Prima meatball.

Photo: Lesa Griffith

After four years of what could be called the Golden Chain Age—when we were all aflutter about the openings of big-name, hotel-based restaurants like Nobu, BLT Steak, Morimoto and Kauai Grill—2011 has turned out to be a banner year for notable indie eateries. Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bar, Heeia Kea Pier General Store and Deli, pop-up restaurants The Pig and The Lady and Plancha, bakery Let Them Eat Cupcakes and now Prima.

A cousin of the Vertical Junkies group of eateries that comprises V Lounge Pizza and Heeia Kea Pier General Store and Deli, Prima is spearheaded by Nobu Waikiki alums Alejandro Briceño and Lindsey Ozawa. They, in turn, have recruited newcomer Kevin Lee, who left his position as sous chef at acclaimed New York restaurant Dovetail to be chef de cuisine of the Kailua kitchen. Ozawa says the menu is a collaborative effort between the three.

These young guns know how to do it right. What was a commonplace pizzeria next to Foodland is now a light, bright café, with robin’s egg blue, Herman Miller Eames molded-plastic chairs and ash-blond wood tables (made from reclaimed Reuse Hawaii wood—as much a conscientious requisite for hip new spots as Shinsato Farm pork belly and MAO Farms produce). The look is the work of Fitted cap-and-T-shirt designer/founder Ola Rapozo. The understated, elegant logo uses the silhouette of a pizza paddle, and the simple menu of largely shareable small plates, using a typewriter font, reads amazingly (and, refreshingly, does away with the provenance of every single ingredient on the menu—we can taste when it’s all locally sourced, thank you).

You’ll pretty much want to say “One of everything please,” which I hear is what the Town restaurant crew asked for on the Prima’s opening night. On Tuesday, only its second night, the place was humming, with the kitchen firing dishes that use Italian cuisine as a jumping-off point.

Prima vaguely models itself on the New York joint Torrisi Italian Specialties, and features familiar terms such as caprese and cannelloni on the menu, but this isn’t a red-sauce joint (although their red sauce is stellar). Its Caprese salad is an elegant construction of fresh, oven-dried and sundried tomatoes (the fresh being the predictable tasteless weak link) with house-pulled mozzarella and house-baked breadsticks. The crudo plate, which changes according to the fresh catch of the day, was a pretty plate of opakapaka morsels dotted with pieces of pomelo, tomato, basil and crisp, mini oven-dried pepperoni slivers. Pepperoni? Yes, it takes the place of salt and makes for a crazy, perfect melding of flavor. These guys are masters of acid—pieces of pan-fried opelu are brightened with oregano-orange marmalade and Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

Ozawa heads the hot-food line and his French cooking skills shine in the sweetbread plate, the two pieces of rich meat sitting in cooked-down chicken stock all savory with capers and lemon, braised lettuce adding an alluring touch of green. “Cannelloni” turns out to be a must-order ensemble of squid stuffed with fennel sausage and topped with fried baby octopi. Grilled peppers and onions add flavor and moisture.

And the comfort-food crowd pleaser? My table went nuts over the spicy meatball—one large beef orb that oozes mozzarella when you slice it in half. It sits in a rich, red piquant sauce and is topped with togarishi, chiles sliced into fine red hairs.

Briceño mans the pizza oven, a gorgeous $20,000, white-tiled Ferrara dome that dominates the open kitchen (and that Prima managed to get only because some other hapless eatery cancelled their order). People raved about the pies, saying they’re better than at Prima’s sister, V Lounge. The yeasty, chewy dough ensured no one left pieces of crust on their plates.

But don’t forget that, at Nobu, Briceño was the pastry chef. His expertise shows in sophisticated desserts such as the subtle ricotta tart topped with shaved dark chocolate, and the banana encased in a milk-chocolate-and-hazelnut cream log (he makes it by freezing the banana first) that is a breadless play on the banana-and-Nutella Panini. Still, lowbrow childhood flavors are a hit every time, and the Cap’n Crunch ice cream was the instant winner.

I could go on and on, but this should be enough to convince you to drive over the Pali yourself. Bring a bottle or two (R. Field is conveniently next door) cause the restaurant is BYOB for the next month or so.

Prima does have a phone number, but calls go pretty much unanswered at the moment. E-mail your reservation in, though, and you’ll receive a prompt reply. Prima is open Mondays to Saturdays, 5 to 11 p.m., and starts lunch and Sunday service in November. Prima, 108 Hekili St; 888-8933;;

Edited 11/3/11. An earlier version of this article described the chairs as "faux Eames."