Experience a sense of family at Pulehu, an Italian Grill
KAANAPALI – It’s always a pleasure to return to a restaurant that you remember fondly; I recently had the opportunity to do that at Pulehu, an Italian Grill. This restaurant is somewhat of a hidden gem tucked away in a lush corner of The Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas. The management would like all residents to know that they offer complimentary valet parking and a 25 percent kama’aina discount off food at any time.
The fare that new Chef de Cuisine Jesse Pita has created for Pulehu is well worth a visit at any price. Chef Jesse was born in New York City and graduated from the famed Culinary Institute of America, but his Italian family background shines through in his cuisine. His family hails from from Bari in Italy’s Apulia region.
“I like to do family style dishes that I grew up with – what my grandmother cooked for us. It’s nostalgic cooking while using as much local produce as possible from small farms on Maui,” Chef Jesse related.
On a recent Friday evening, Tom and I visited Pulehu to try this hearty Italian food. The restaurant is relaxed with cool indoor and outdoor garden seating. There’s a very friendly vibe from the restaurant manager to the hostess and servers – everyone we encountered seemed to love what they were doing and radiated gracious hospitality. Around the dining room, I noticed guests were enjoying real conversation and taking their time to savor each course. It was so refreshing to see that the meal and joy of dining was the focus.
Our dinner began with classic Bruschetta; on crunchy, sliced Italian bread grilled with olive oil, Chef Jesse adds creamy Burrata cheese, marinated red and gold tomatoes fresh from Kula and basil. The layers of texture and flavor burst in your mouth with each bite.
We couldn’t wait to try the Pan Fried Gnocchi Genovese – this Italian comfort food had a delightful twist with its crispy coating around the soft potato dumpling. The pesto sauce was enhanced with pine nuts and shaved Pecorino-Romano cheese for a melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece.
To cleanse the palate, we shared a bright, fresh Arugula Salad that was tossed with endive and radicchio in aged Balsamic and extra virgin olive oil dressing. Then we were ready for the entrees. Chef Jesse has divided the menu into categories for main dishes, which include pizza from a wood-fired oven, pasta that is house-made and entrees that feature island fish, chicken, lamb chops, veal ossobuco and beef steaks.
We skipped the pizza course, although the Calabrese pie with spicy Italian sausage, mozzarella and Maui Surfing Goat Dairy cheeses looked heavenly. Instead, we delved into a very creamy Fettucine Alfredo that arrived in a large bowl with a made-to-share portion. The Lobster Risotto was very tempting, too. It features saffron-infused rice with roasted tomatoes and Big Island grown lobster.
Since I’m a big fan of risotto as well as local fish, I selected the Risotto Crusted Pesce as a main dish. The day’s catch was Monchong, which was pan-seared in pesto citrus butter and sealed with a crust of risotto, so you get to munch through a crunchy shell, then bite into cheesy risotto followed by tangy firm fish. It was so ‘ono and served with roasted squash grown in the restaurant’s garden.
Chef Jesse told us, “We have an herb garden in back of the restaurant and an urban cultivator that grows micro-greens and garnishes. Outside the restaurant there’s an aquaponic garden where we’re experimenting with organic eggplant, a variety of squash, basil, mint and green onions. Our bartenders use the herbs, too.”
Pulehu’s bar stretches outside of the exhibition kitchen. The mixologists are well-versed in creating handcrafted cocktails. But it was Pulehu’s extensive wine list that dazzled us. Restaurant Manager Jim Hansen is a wine connoisseur, and we look forward to his recommendations. His list has won Wine Spectator awards five years in a row and showcases a large selection of wines from every region of Italy plus new world wines from California, Washington and New Zealand. Jim brought us a bold Barolo by Vietti that was light enough to complement the variety of dishes we enjoyed. He’s great at locating wines from small vineyards that are hard to find in the islands.
Although we were satiated, we knew we couldn’t leave without trying the chef’s signature dessert: Chocolate & Almond Olive Oil Cake. It’s really moist, reminding me of one that my grandmother made. I asked Jesse about his version; he said that it was modified from a very old recipe, and his pastry chef wife tweaked it with almond flour so it’s gluten-free. It’s served with black cherries and cherry gelato.
By the end of our delicious meal, we felt like we had eaten at a family home. In fact, Jim Hansen remarked: “Pulehu is our family serving your family. Every server has been with us a long time and they’re all West Side residents. We’re friendly, humble and not pretentious; we’re there to give great service. So come on in and join our family.”
Pulehu is open for dinner Thursday through Monday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. For reservations, see pulehurestaurantmaui.com or call (808) 667-3254.