La Dolce Vita

Michele and Qiana DiBari are the husband-and-wife owners, and culinary virtuosi, behind Lahaina’s Sale Pepe, winner of 2017’s Gold ‘Aipono Award for best Italian restaurant. They’ve just opened a second venue next door to Sale Pepe — A Fianco, Italian for “next door” — but today we’re not dining at either venue. Instead, the DiBaris have invited me to a picnic at their favorite West Maui beach. Having dined at Sale Pepe, I’d be crazy to say no, in English or Italian.


Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Mieko Horikoshi

beach picnic
Italian cuisine goes al fresco at this beach picnic on Maui. The menu: chicken Milanese on flatbread, pasta fregola salad, and marinara and cheese-filled panzarotti.

In 1989, Michele DiBari, age seventeen, feverishly scanned a job-recruitment magazine for a cook’s position in Germany. Employment options were limited in his hometown of Rozzano, Italy, and the young DiBari feared a grim future if he stayed. He hopped a northbound train, arrived in Germany, and landed a job in the small Bavarian town of Waldkirchen — at an Italian restaurant.

Two years later, having saved every Deutsche Mark he could, Michele and a partner purchased land in tropical Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica, and established a bed and breakfast they named Hotel Mamiri. To support that venture, Michele moved to New York City and went to work as a chef at (where else?) an Italian restaurant. DiBari had found his niche. Each successful restaurant opening as chef/partner led to another, until he’d managed to open nine restaurants in New York City, the Dominican Republic, and the French Alps.

In 2005, Michele met Qiana Wallace, a manager and video producer for American rapper, singer, actor and record producer Q-Tip; and the rap band A Tribe Called Quest. The two fell in love and soon married. Wanting to own and operate a family business, the DiBaris sold their shares in the other restaurants, and in 2013, with two-year-old daughter Jada in tow, moved to Maui, determined to simplify their lives. Qiana’s mother, “Mama Dawn,” was not happy about having her daughter and son-in-law move nearly five thousand miles away. “I couldn’t believe they’d move so far from home!” she tells me.

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Jada making pasta with her nonna (grandmother)

I ask, “Is it because you’d miss your grandchild?”

“Yes, of course,” she answers, then a sly smile appears. “But just partly. I’d grown accustomed to all the good food, and that was going away, too!” So what’s a young grandmother to do? “I decided to move to Maui [temporarily] to help them open up Sale Pepe.”

Sale Pepe

Michele nods. “We couldn’t have done it without [our family’s] support.”

He offers homemade panzarotti to Qiana’s sister, Danielle, who’s vacationing with Dawn and her own child, two-year-old Xavier. Lahaina’s Baby Beach is the perfect relaxing venue for Danielle, a production designer who’s worked for such fashion leaders as GAP and Banana Republic. Nodding at the lapping surf, Michele says, “Sometimes I come here when I have a few moments from work . . . just to unwind. And we come here often on the weekends as a family.”

As I joyfully accept a panzarotti, Qiana admits that this isn’t the usual Italian fare of Michele’s forefathers and mothers. Michele elaborates: “In Italy, my whole family, including my aunts and uncles, would show up throughout the day with big trays of food, from eggplant parmesan to lasagna. . . . so much food! Everyone ate all day long!” I bite into my panzarotti, and the dough is soft and supple, fried, but not greasy. “I make a dough with a blend of wheat and semolina flours and it’s fried in olive oil,” says Michele. “It’s a family recipe that I tweaked.” Qiana says, “Panzarotti was Michele’s favorite childhood)  food and was always served at the beach in Lavello, the tiny town where his father was born and where they spent summers.” She adds that, loosely translated, “Panzarotti means ‘little bellies’ and refers to the tomato-sauce and mozzarella-filled pockets of these small, southern Italian delicacies.” We strategically bite into the doughy chamber, tilting our heads to catch the soft, creamy filling that gushes from the edges.

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