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.

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Michele and Qiana’s latest addition to the island’s culinary scene is A Fianco — Italian for “next door.” Located adjacent to sister restaurant Sale Pepe, A Fianco opens for lunch with an ever-changing menu of items like those above (left to right): fior di latte (fresh mozzarella) pizza, arugula and parmesan salad, rigatoni alla vodka, and fusilli al pesto. Buonissimo!

The sun hits its zenith as we pass around a plate laden with golden, crunchy chicken Milanese that’s nestled between Michele’s flatbread with tomato slices, and basil and sundried tomatoes puréed with mayonnaise. Is this pesto mayo, I ask Michele? “No,” he answers. “It’s fresh basil. Pesto would overpower the chicken. I prefer the herb taste. It’s not so rich.” I remember his mantra: Keep it simple and use the freshest and best-quality ingredients.  It is sublime and the panino disappears like magic.

Dawn and Danielle are deep in conversation, as Xavier’s eyelids struggle to stay open. Jada is at the water’s edge, digging in the sand with a newfound girlfriend. I lower my voice so as not to wake the nodding prince nestled in his mother’s lap. “Qiana, what were your summers like, growing up in New York?” She replies, “Outdoorsy options were limited to Prospect Park or Coney Island. Prospect Park is probably the greenest space in the borough; it’s like the Launiupoko of Brooklyn, where everyone goes to picnic.” Dawn agrees, “Our most pleasant memories were at Prospect Park. I’d load all five kids in the car and we’d do barbecues. I took the kids there from the time Qiana was ten years old until she moved on to college.”

Qiana smiles and says, “Coney Island was the opposite of an open-space experience. There were crowds everywhere on the beach. Literally, a hundred-thousand people searched to find a tiny space on the sand. Still, as a child, it was stimulating and thrilling to hear the loud music and ride the old, rickety Cyclone roller coaster. If we were lucky, our parents would buy us hot dogs at the original Nathan’s — my favorite hot dogs to this very day. The snap on that casing cannot be beat! Hot dogs aside, my family usually kept our picnics very simple: fried chicken and potato salad were standard, super portable and perfect served at room temp.” She adds, “This chicken Milanese is a nod to the American fried chicken that was celebration fare for my family, but is also a very common picnic option in Italy. You can even find it at the huge rest-stop stores along the Autostrade [highways] in Italy.

Insalata di Fregola
Sale Pepe’s Insalata di Fregola

“Did you try the insalata di fregola, yet?” she asks. I dig into the salad of chickpeas, tomato, and fregola (a white, pearl-like pasta an eighth inch in diameter), tossed in a red-wine vinaigrette. It’s the perfect balance to the chicken panino. Qiana says, “Fresh, fast and simple, this pasta salad came to us via Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. We love having a vehicle for veggies as an option at any gathering, and this pasta is wonderful paired with a variety of fresh veggies and a good vinaigrette. We serve it regularly at A Fianco, our new restaurant.”

As our afternoon winds down and sea breezes cool the air, I think about my own mother-in-law, Florence, and her visits to be with her Maui family. I see in Dawn the same need to stay connected, to build memories, and the joy she takes away each time she returns home to New York. There’s a sense of peace and security in knowing that, even though they are five-thousand miles away, her family is rich with love and prospering in many ways. Dawn says, “ I’m so proud of them and their success. Qiana found a winner in Michele . . . and he found a jewel in Qiana.”

Sale Pepe/A Fianco
Old Lahaina Center, 878 Front Street, Lahaina | 667-7667 | SalePepeMaui.com


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