Tuscany meets Hawaii at Chef James Babian’s new Waikoloa eatery, Pueo’s Osteria.
Babian, who most recently spent six years as the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Kaupulehu’s executive chef, opened the upscale Italian restaurant last month. Located in the Waikoloa Highlands Shopping Center, Pueo’s Osteria is meant to appeal to the area’s night owls, with dinner and late-night offerings at the bar, as well as provide a fine dining experience within Waikoloa.
Babian was blown away by the initial response to his soft opening — 200 covers, restaurant parlance for meals served.
The restaurant, thus far, has followed Babian’s business plan exactly as he laid it out, except in one area.
“We are exceeding the amount of covers (anticipated), which is a good problem,” he said.
Babian and his wife, real estate agent Christine, were planning to open a bar in the shopping center, offering appetizers and drinks. Such a move would have allowed him to continue working at the Four Seasons. But the more the couple talked with the shopping center’s property managers about leasing a space, the more those property managers pushed for a full-blown restaurant.
Babian was adamant during the negotiation process that the restaurant not be open for lunch — “Everyone works down the hill from the town,” he said — and that he be able to completely renovate the interior. After months of negotiations, he and the management company reached an agreement, then Babian had to inform his bosses at the resort he was leaving. They made a generous offer to try to entice him to stay, but he moved ahead with the restaurant plan. Much of his motivation was personal, he said, noting his family — he has two teenage children — lives in Waikoloa, just a mile and a half from the restaurant.
His Four Seasons bosses took his departure well, and have since come to the restaurant several times. Many former restaurant patrons Babian served at the high-end resort have also made their way up to the shopping center to test Babian’s new fare.
He couldn’t have gotten to the point of being able to open a restaurant without his Four Seasons experience, he said.
“They just made me more business savvy and guest-focused,” Babian said. “Those lessons continue to pay dividends. They gave us the tools to set ourselves up for success.”
He brought along some talent from the Four Seasons kitchens, including his general manager Kurt Umehara.
Dinner prices range from $15 pizzas to $28 seafood entrees; the menu includes appetizers and salads as well. The bar menu, which is served until 1 a.m. weeknights, 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. Sundays, features meatball sliders, zucchini strings and build-your-own pizzas, which start at $13.
Babian made a name for himself in West Hawaii as an advocate of food that is seasonal and regional, encouraging Big Island farms to begin growing ingredients the resorts routinely import. He brought that perspective to Pueo’s Osteria — his walk-in cooler is filled with locally grown tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, leeks, fennel, carrots, beef and seafood. Entrees featuring wild Hawaii Island boar fly out of the kitchen, he said.
When he can’t buy locally, he buys what he considers to be the best quality ingredients, from fresh mozzarella to San Marzano canned tomatoes to Italian pasta to supplement the fresh pasta made on site.
He and his staff roll out gnocchi just in front of a doorway where bar patrons can watch, he said. Pizzas cook in a wood-fired brick oven, made with imported double zero flour and Big Island honey. Local bee pollen is sprinkled atop the parfait on the Sunday brunch menu. He even gets cinnamon from a West Hawaii farm.
“I can’t help myself,” he said, holding the cinnamon shaker and displaying the label proclaiming its local origins.
Buying locally is just who he is, how he rolls, he said.
Some antipasti are served on kiawe and mango wood platters, similar to wooden plates Babian received dishes on while in Italy. The move is one of several mixing Italian themes with Hawaii flair seen throughout the restaurant. Koa is also a design theme, and the restaurant’s one large table is a rough-edged monkeypod plank turned into a shiny table tall enough to need bar stools for seats.
Babian and his daughter made the tile-topped tables for the outdoor seating area.
The restaurant didn’t just have a fast start. Babian said customers are already booking reservations through December.
“We’re very honored and humbled,” he said. “We weren’t ready for that.”