Side Orders • April 14, 2016

GONDOLA MISSING . . . But that was about the ONLY thing absent from the ‘Ai Pono Awards held on Sunday at Grand Wailea with a Venetian theme and people costumed to the nines.

For the uninitiated, the awards are the Oscars of Maui’s restaurant industry and anybody who is anyone in it attends. This time, hordes donned costumes and masks. With Italian cuisine, Italian music and gold-painted mimes, it transported one into a carnival in that fabled city, or at the very least to the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Bumped into Chef Cameron Lewark, whose restaurant Spago at the Four Seasons Resort Maui won “Best Pacific Rim.” He’ll present Dim Sum Sundays this weekend and April 17 in Spago.

“I’ll create a dish with three dumplings, priced at $26 that will include Malama Farms pork potsticker, crystal chive dumpling and Kauai shrimp har gow,” says the seasoned chef. Lewark will also cook a Spanish-themed wine dinner April 22. Call 879-2999.

Kyle Kawakami won the Best Food Truck award for his Maui Fresh Streatery. He had dyed blond hair and wore a Borg mask. Someone should have told him it wasn’t a “Star Trek” theme. But it was all in fun – as the employees of MiGrant in Wailea wore Sheldon Simeon masks – all with different facial expressions.

Aaron Plackourakis, owner of Manoli’s, Sarento’s and Nick’s Fishmarket in South Maui and Son’z Steakhouse in Kaanapali, accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award in painted Italian mustachio while imitating an Italian accent. (His parents are from Greece).

Michael Lofaro of Humuhumunukunukuapua’a won the Best Chef award and was voted in by his peers only. He wore no mask, but we would have guessed who he was with those big blue eyes anyway. What talent. And a TV star to boot on “Search Hawaii: Where Food Meets Culture” with more episodes coming this summer.

Others in the crowd who were a spectacle of delight were Jennifer Nguyen of A Saigon Cafe wearing a ginormous peacock mask in which she walked sideways to not bump into people; Rome native and Mill House GM Francesco Greco under gold beak; Maui No Ka Oi magazine publisher Diane Haynes Woodburn in peacock gown; emcee Dean Wong in a “Phantom of the Opera” cape and mask; Kelii Heen of Youngs Market in a sharp-dressed-man suit; and writer Shannon Wianecki in a stunning ballgown. Veteran restaurateurs Beverly and Joe Gannon wore fun matching outfits. I could go on and on. But winner of Best Costume was Amanda Furgiuele, the owner of Body in Balance Maui Pilates & Personal Training Studio in Lahaina, who was a knockout in a regal gown and accoutrements that she made herself.

Boss Charles Fredy of Chambers & Chambers wine merchants did a stellar job on the vino and Maui Culinary Academy rocked with the Italian reception appetizers, like Tom Lelli’s al-dente gnocchi. What on earth will the theme be next year?

It was nice to see other veterans in the crowd, including Alex Stanislaw of Napili Kai Beach Club; Michael Rose of Longhi’s; Roy Dunn of Koho’s; and Preston Hope, chef of Nalu’s South Shore Grill that won Best New Restaurant under the direction of owner Ron Panzo.

Of course, The Maui News’ annual Best of Maui contest will launch voting soon- and the coveted results will be published Sept. 4. Our contest is the original “best of” on the island and it remains online for one year for people to whet their appetites.

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BITS AND PIECES . . . Another Maui mom-and-pop store has hit the big time. The popular Upcountry grocery store, Pukalani Superette, was in Lucas Peterson’s Frugal Traveler March 30 article in The New York Times. Titled “In Tourist-Heavy Maui, Finding Deals and Aha Moments,” author Lucas said he ate fantastically on Maui and one of his favorite spots was Pukalani Superette. (See my blog online for more details.)

On another local note, the Chinese Kite Festival will be flying high at the Wo Hing Museum & Cookhouse on Front Street in Lahaina starting at 2 p.m. on Friday with demos and displays.

After 4 p.m., you may sip Chinese teas in the Tea Garden and munch char siu bao and other delicacies by Manapua Bakery in Wailuku.