Rugby advantage

There wasn’t a dry eye in the group at Marco’s Grill & Deli in Kahului the other afternoon.

None of the men being interviewed were concerned that Marco’s reigns as the Best Italian Restaurant on Maui in the current Best of Maui contest, or that it serves fresh grilled salmon and mahimahi. The latter is done piccata-style with lots of lemon, butter, capers, tomato, garlic onion and clam broth over linguine.

Nobody mentioned that for 21 years now, Marco’s Grill & Deli has dished up quality meals with top-notch service for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Or that its convenient spot near the airport and the big-box stores is enhanced with cool air conditioning, cushy booths and chairs, and soothing music.

None of that mattered.

All involved were focused on the $5,000 check that owner Marco Defanis was about to present to Maui Rugby Organization, the fourth time that he’s donated a substantial sum to island players.

He donates a big “chunk of change” each year in honor of his restaurant’s anniversary, which is April 17. Other beneficiaries have included Maui Food Bank as well as Maui Humane Society.

“You can call him Saint Marco as far as I’m concerned,” says Jack Breen, president of Maui Rugby and retired lawyer, originally from the East Coast.

“Other sports like soccer, parents pay the fees,” Breen continues. “But Marco pays the fees for Maui Rugby. When we first started, we had 10 kids playing for free. Now, we have 1,000 kids on Maui playing rugby, all because of Marco.”

One tears-of-joy story was that of Ma’aki Lolohea, who, at the tender age of 9 months, was seated in his baby stroller when one of his siblings threw him a rugby ball, and it bounced off.

“He was so tenacious, he climbed out of the stroller to get it, and took his first steps when he did,” says Breen. “At age 3, he played rugby at Aloha Stadium on Oahu. As a 5-year-old, he’s now the most experienced rugby player for his age in the entire United States.”

Vili Toluta’u is another one of Marco’s success stories. He is now in Hong Kong for the Junior World Trophy, a big international youth tournament there.

While still a Maui resident, he’s playing in Hong Kong on a full rugby scholarship from Central Washington University.

“He’s only 19 years old, and he’s now on his fifth international tour representing the U.S.,” says Breen. “There are only a dozen rugby scholarships in the country, and we have three of them.”

After Vili played in Japan, he presented Mayor Alan Arakawa with a Japan National Referee jersey and a tie from the Japanese Rugby Union. According to Breen, Arakawa is a big supporter of the sport.

Vili will return home this summer to talk to the kids about scholarships. But it’s not just about him. Dozens of other lives have been touched.

“Pretty much, Marco has helped to keep these kids off the street,” says Breen. “He causes such a blossoming in their young lives. Marco pays for socks, shoes, sneakers and uniforms. Red is their favorite color, so he got red shirts. I tell them, Nike sponsors Michael Jordan. Marco sponsors you. They feel so important.”

When MRO toured Oahu, 80 children got to attend, and “three of our four teams came home champions,” says Breen. “That’s the difference a generous man can make for the community.”

“It’s all about Maui,” adds Marco, eyes moist with tears. “If it wasn’t for the island community, I wouldn’t be here. Plus, giving back makes me feel good.”

Both Breen and Head Coach Pita Totau had tears in their eyes, too. Everyone got quiet, then Breen added on a lighter note that, “There’s nothing better for a rugby player before the game than pasta. That’s what all the Euros eat.”

Breen claims that he used to have six-pack abs back in the day, and now he’s got a keg. He says that he also loves Marco’s lasagne marinara, sausage with peppers and desserts such as tiramisu.

Desserts tempt you right at the entrance case, and signature dishes such as the vodka rigatoni, classic Caesar salad and chicken parmigiana keep customers returning year after year.

In recent times, besides donating money to nonprofits, Marco threw serious money at the restaurant with new flatware, bone China and leatherlike table covers topping the linens. Live plants, sexy martini glasses and champagne flutes add to the menu, which has also been enhanced.

“We’ve added so many new dishes, such as French onion soup, crab mac ‘n’ cheese, Cobb salad, flat breads, and iceberg wedges with blue cheese.”