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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2007

Taormina is mighty addition to city's Italian lineup

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Sicilian cuisine at Taormina

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Taormina executive chef Aki Yamamoto shows off his rigatoni arrabiata the best in town.

Photos by JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rating: Three and one half forks out of five (Good to Very good)

227 Lewers St. between Kalakaua Avenue and Helumoa Road, 926-5050, www.taorminarestaurant.com

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Prices: $10-$19 starters, $16-$23 pasta, $18-$45 meat and fish

Payment: AX, DC, JCB, MC, VS. No personal checks

Recommended: rigatoni arrabiata, bucatini fresh sardine, lamb chops, veal involtini, stuffed swordfish

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The arrabiata is spicy.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The lamb chops ultra-tender.

Photo courtesy Randy Seki

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When a restaurant shouts "We have traditional Sicilian food!" I don't expect the spaghetti Bolognese to taste like my Mom's sweet, hamburger-packed, liquidy version. She's a sansei from Manoa and has never been to Palermo (or Bologna). But that's what the one-month-old Taormina's Bolognese tastes like and hey, I slurped it up because I love Mom's s'ghetti.

Taormina is the product of WDI International. The Japanese company brought Tony Roma's to Hawai'i, and operates more than 200 restaurants in the United States, Guam and Japan. But lately it's moved beyond middle-of-the-road ribs, partnering with more upscale culinary types to open spots like Wolfgang's Steakhouse in New York. (They'll open one in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center next year.) Taormina is its first "concept" restaurant.

Like Tavola Tavola on Monsarrat, Taormina is an Italian restaurant helmed by a Japanese Italophile. Chef Aki Yamamoto, who most recently was at Spago Tokyo, spent two months eating his way through Sicily with WDI honchos. Taormina's menu is the result. Aside from the Bolognese, not much was lost in translation. It's a reasonable cultural exchange Japanese and Italian cuisine both showcase the essence of top-notch ingredients.

Ponytailed Yamamoto, all Toshiro Mifune hunky in the open kitchen, sends out Sicilian classics, such as pasta con sarde called bucatini "fresh sardine" on the menu. The last time I had this dish was at Joe's of Avenue U in Brooklyn. I awaited the old-school joint's specialty with anticipation. It tasted like cat food (or what cat food smells like it would taste).

So it was with trepidation that I ordered the dish this time around. And it was a whole new experience. The hollow spaghetti is tossed with bits of fresh sardines shipped in from Japan, dill replaces the usual fennel, and pine nuts lend nutty texture it tastes of the sea and teaches us that Sicilian food isn't just red sauce. The best part is the crisp, fried filet atop the pasta.

Another signature, and Sicilian tradition, is uni pasta. Unfortunately, the restaurant makes only six servings (good for two to three people) a night and they were out on a recent evening. If you want to try it, order it when you book your table.

The rigatoni arrabiata is the best in town, the tomatoey (and not too sweet) sauce piquant with dried red chilies. While the restaurant doesn't make its own pasta, it cooks it to chewy al dente perfection.

Starters include a choose-from-a-list antipasti platter, with such selections (in minute portions) as a caponata (refreshing tomatoey eggplant salad), grape tomatoes and mini mozzarella balls and tako and artichoke in pesto. An ordinary clump of greens is made extraordinary with blood orange dressing.

Like Japan, Sicily is known for its seafood, and Yamamoto prepares his pesci well. Textbook black crisscrosses mark the grilled tuna simply dressed with olive oil, capers and herbs. Yamamoto gives swordfish a roulade treatment, stuffing it with mozzarella, pine nuts and onion to create a most tasty grilled seafood sausage.

He's equally adept with meats. Take your choice of excellent veal, familiar Parmesan-style, topped with a tomato sauce and cheese, or more sophisticated as involtini rolled with mozzarella, porcini and almonds and served in a dark Marsala sauce. You've had veal Parmesan a million times before, but this one has a sauce with rich tomato flavor and the high-grade veal is been pounded to no-knife-needed tenderness. The grilled lamb chops are just that two perfect, tender Colorado chops, rubbed with sea salt flakes and pepper, the thick rinds of fat juicy beneath the crisped exterior. This being Waikiki, the chops are $45 steep, considering Chef Mavro's trademark lamb is $42.

Likewise, the wine list by Roberto Viernes, one of two Hawai'i master sommeliers, is a high-minded, high-priced selection heavy on Super Tuscans and light on by-the-glass choices (which range from $9 to $22). You sip from Riedel stemware.

Service on the two visits ranged from gregariously attentive to mildly condescending watch out for that "mineral or flat?" water trick, if you want the free stuff. You have to specify "tap."

If you're intrigued by the "baked panna cotta," we'll save you the trouble: It's a dense flan.

What ties the whole experience together is the multichambered space. Peter Vincent and Associates is becoming the David Rockwell Group (they did Nobu Waikiki) of Hawai'i, serving up another delicious room. Taormina echoes the firm's work on Rokkaku at Ala Moana Center, the shades of brown, beige and white altered and enhanced with texture in the form of Ultrasuede panels and plaster in wave patterns. While the restaurant appears small with just a few tables on two levels, there is a lot more space on the open-air terrace.

Taormina is a strong addition to Honolulu's limited lineup of Italian restaurants at a price.

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.