Big City Dining In Old Koloa Town

La Spezia is a new restaurant in Koloa that’s got locals excited. Visitors certainly will enjoy it, but they won’t find a single Pacific Rim item on the small menu.

Instead, the bistro offers rustic Italian food, hearty portions and reasonable prices. There also are light jazz, handcrafted cocktails, a wine cellar and a refined yet homey atmosphere that lends a big city feel, for which many residents long.

After running Casablanca in Poipu for 10 years, owners Elizabeth Foley and Dan Seltzer closed their resort restaurant to set up in Old Koloa Town. In 1997, the couple opened Dali Deli on the east end of the Old Town Shops, and this is where the family-run business has returned.

There’s ample parking in the lot next to the restaurant. Inside, crystal chandeliers hang from chocolate-colored ceilings. Black-and-white family photographs hang on tan-colored walls, including one taken in the family’s apartment in Rome. Located on Via Spezia, which means “spice street” in Italian, the street is known for its spice market. Tables that Foley hand-crafted are made from wine crates and topped with small vases of fresh herbs, and a temperature-controlled wine cellar holds 100 bottles of wine that range in price from $18 to $120.

Mia Foley, Elizabeth’s daughter, blends cocktails behind a monkeypod and limestone bar. After leaving her executive chef position at Gaylord’s, Megan Handke looks extremely happy in her new kitchen where she and sous chef Laura Stewart make everything from scratch.

My husband Dan and I tuck in to a high table that seats eight, the top of which is made from a limestone slab. A picture window offers a quaint view of Koloa Street. As the sun begins to set, everything is tinged with gold. A light rain shower turns the lush field across the street vibrant green.

As a former bartender at Seattle’s Tavern Law and Rumba, Mia learned to use fresh juice in her balanced and refreshing cocktails. Tequila Mockingbird ($9) is her creation made with lemon juice, pineapple juice, Sauza Blue Silver tequila and St. Germaine elder-flower liqueur. Ciao Bella ($10), made with Maui’s organic Ocean Vodka, limoncello, lemon juice and basil, is topped with a Fragoli Wild Strawberry float, which contains tiny, handpicked wild strawberries.

Fresh ciabatta bread topped with chunky sea salt and a blend of poppy and celery seeds is served with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. House-made gnocchi ($10) are light and tender. The Italian dumplings made with potatoes are infused with whole-grain mustard and tossed with wilted arugula leaves and soft cherry tomato halves. It all comes together in a pool of light broth and fine shavings of Parmesan cheese.

Steamed clams and house-cured pork belly ($14) are served in white wine broth. If you like to play with your food, you’ll have a great time sipping succulent clams from their shells and dipping thin slivers of crostini (Italian for little toasts) in the garlicky broth studded with cubes of tender pork.

Maiale Con Ginepro ($18) piles four slices of pan-seared pork tenderloin on a bed of “naked” capellini, which is like spaghetti only a lot thinner. It’s topped with a mound of juniper berry and caper butter sauce and surrounded by bright-green basil oil. Mia’s choice of Pinot Noir from Napa Valley’s Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards is a light accompaniment to the meal.

Hanger Steak ($22) is the butcher’s choice because it’s packed with flavor. Handke cooks it medium rare, slices it thin and piles it on pan-seared polenta infused with gorgonzola cheese. Grilled asparagus spears, a rich house-made demi-glace and briny olive tapenade make a bold dish that holds its owns against a robust Sangiovese produced by Farnese, a 16th century Italian vineyard.

Vegetarians and vegans will find hearty options such as mushroom risotto ($18) and Spaghetti Arrabbiata ($14). For those on a gluten-free diet, order “noodles” made from long strips of zucchini, which Handke says she likes better than traditional pasta. No need to make reservations, La Spezia prefers a casual, walk-in approach. If you are on an alternative diet, just let them know when you order.

On Friday (Sept. 27), La Spezia and The Wine Shop are hosting a four-course wine dinner. The first course features local clams and Tenuta di Nozzole Bruniche Chardonnay. Second course pairs Michele Chiarlo Le Oune Barbera d’Asti with stuffed quail and roasted root vegetables. Third course includes lamb ossu bucco with Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto Toscana, and for dessert zabaione and seasonal fruit are paired with Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti. Reservations are recommended for this dinner.

La Spezia 5492 Koloa Road, Koloa 742-8824 LaSpeziaKauai.com

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.

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