Add Northern Italy to the Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese and haole cultural influences on Waiakoa, a traditional village on Lower Kula Road. There was lots of buzz when Cafe 808 closed. Even more buzz when carpenters, painters and electricians began working on the place originally built as a meat market.
A modest sign under the canopy announced the arrival of the "Kula Bistro." Considering Kula's farm/ranch heritage, the name sounded a little chichi. Speculation ended this week when Luciano Zanon opened his latest culinary enterprise on Maui.
"The Italian word for this kind of restaurant is trattoria, but I thought bistro was more recognizable," Zanon said Wednesday. He operated the award-winning Tiffany restaurant in the Maui Mall some 15 years ago. Later he had a catering company that prepared in-flight meals for private jets landing at Kahului.
Along the way, Zanon and his Maui-girl wife, Chantal, built a home in Kula. "I totally love this place," said the man from Venice. Zanon began thinking about opening a Kula restaurant serving fresh food at reasonable prices. He underlined "fresh" by showing off the restaurant's only freezer. I've seen bigger ones in private homes.
"This place came on the market," Zanon said. A deal was done with David Morihara and the renovation crews were brought in.
Thousands were spent on kitchen and baking equipment. From floor to ceiling the place was overhauled, turning the old plate-lunch, picnic-table place into a comfortable sit-down restaurant with servers taking orders for "simple, home-style food with an Italian flare." Under "Local Favorites," the menu lists loco moco. Can't get much more local than that. There's also takeout, including pizza.
So far, only breakfast has been sampled personally - eggs Benedict. The traditional eggs benny came with a type of Italian bread under thick slices of ham and an agreeably tart hollandaise sauce with chunks of lightly fried potatoes on the side. While going in, a woman was overheard saying the crepe-thin blueberry pancakes "are to die for."
Anyone with a sweet tooth will be drawn to a long display case of pastries created each day. Wednesday morning, pastry chef Hugh Boggs worked on an array of goodies in full view of the dining area. Boggs, a longtime associate of Zanon's, muttered that he'd been "dragged out of retirement."
By way of full disclosure, I have an ongoing prejudice against anything new replacing an old favorite. It took months in the 1970s before I'd trade at the convenience store and McDonald's that replaced the old Shell Station and small grocery in Pukalani. A good restaurant only two miles from a bachelor's home is another matter entirely.
After talking to him, it seems only appropriate to refer to Zanon by his first name. Luciano is charming, if not entirely relaxed. "I'm asking my customers to be patient until all the employees get on the same page. Give me a couple of weeks."
I'm not sure what worries him. Breakfast service was efficient, pleasant and tasty. The pastries sang a siren's song that was hard to ignore even with doctor's orders.
Monday night, the place was packed. I decided to hang around for an open seat but was sidetracked by a typical Upcountry solution to a problem. Seems a young woman had backed her car over a low concrete barrier to a drop-off. That left her car high-centered, the wheels barely touching the ground.
She was frantic. Her boyfriend and an unrelated customer tried rocking the car off the length of concrete. No go. Another customer volunteered his truck and a tow strap. With no discussion or plan, Customer No. 1 and the boyfriend heaved up on the front of the car while the truck yanked back. In seconds, the heavers and the yanker fell into a synchronized rhythm. The car came free, just a little worse for wear.
Wednesday morning, Luciano was shown the drop-off and immediately placed an orange cone to warn some other half-blind customer from getting hung up. Just another small detail to handle in getting squared away.
Kula Bistro overcame any lingering prejudice on my part when I saw Luciano had kept the dining-area sink where generations of farmers, cowboys and construction workers have washed the day's work off their hands before sitting down to a good meal.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.