“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all,” wrote Goethe of the small island with the big personality.
For Sicilians, describing themselves simply as Italians would be like Kaua‘i’s Queen Kapule being described as simply Hawaiian.
There is a distinct and specific culture that developed in Sicily separate from the mainland; and even within the island, smaller divisions of northern, western, eastern, southern and Aeolian villages are important to one’s identity. Sound familiar? In Lihu‘e, Rob Valenti cooks up a Sicilian feast, with recipes passed down through generations.
Valenti’s family hails from a village called Salina in the Aeolian archipelago just north of Sicily.
These islands have a history steeped in drama: Grecian, Roman, French, Spanish and Ottoman Sultanates have each added their chapter to the islands’ history, helping it to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Greeks introduced farming methods and colonized native inhabitants with their religion.
During Pax Romana, the island was nicknamed “the granary of Rome” when the foreign conquerors planted durum wheat which led to eventual soil depletion.
With Arab immigration, eggplant, lemon and oranges were introduced, deeply influencing Sicilian cuisine.
While the past may have been multi-cultural, the food today is strongly Italian … or Sicilian … or Aeolian … or just simply delicious.
Sicilian pizza is traditionally square and deep, while the mainland of Italy spreads the crust thin and wide — perhaps mirroring their geographical stance in the country.
Valenti makes pizza both styles, with traditional recipes he remembers his father making for the family every Friday night.
Born and raised in Boston, Valenti grew up always having great pride in his Sicilian heritage.
“In earlier immigrant generations, there was so much pressure to assimilate quickly into American society that families named their kids Paul instead of Paolo, Joseph instead of Giuseppe,” he said. “But in this current generation, we have more desire to stay true to our heritage and there is a new wave of naming kids of Italian-decent with Italian names.”
Kristen, Rob’s wife, is the proud mother of two and often brings Jake and Gianna to help their dad throw some dough. “My 3-year-old son, Jake, can already make better pizzas than most of my staff.” He teases.
Valenti’s strong family values translate to his ethics as a businessman. “This is family restaurant. I want local families to come and eat together. Nothing gives an Italian cook more pleasure than watching people eat their food.”
Valenti spent years in high-end food and beverage management on the East Coast before coming to Kaua‘i 18 years ago.
Unlike the posh restaurants he managed, Valenti wanted to make his place affordable for working families. The home-made dough, sauce and pasta are part of the family-style ethos Valenti employs in his business.
“We make everything from scratch and usually, for other places, that means it’s going to be high priced. It’s been a long process of learning how to make food that is completely home-made, yet cater to the average working household. Overtime we’ve been able to drop our prices considerably because we have become more efficient in the production of the food and more precise about what sells.”
When Colenti’s opened two years ago, it was also a traditional Italian deli, with fresh buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto di parma for sale in an 8-foot deli case. “Those products just didn’t do well in this market. Now we have a 4-foot deli case for salads, lasagna to-go and home-made cannoli.”
Valenti’s sensitive approach to his customers and their budget has made his restaurant a local success. “We have gourmet food on paper plates — meaning, if you put our lasagna on porcelain, we’d go head to head with any expensive restaurant.”
The brightly colored mural on the wall depicts a typical Boston neighborhood: Boys in Red Sox jerseys hitting a ball under lines of laundry drying in the wind; local artist, Eduardo, painted the piece for Valenti.
Black & white photographs from a cozy Italian kitchen of his Nonni (grandmother) hang above the soda machine. And the air smells sweet from his family’s famous tomato sauce.
From the recipes to the wall, Valenti has poured his life into this Kaua‘i pizzeria. “I want to give back to the local community here with my food. I opened for them. Times are tough for so many on the island, I hope we can provide good quality food at affordable prices.”
On a recent trip to Italy with his wife and son, Valenti noticed Italian food was becoming much less diversified and even, somewhat, Americanized. “You would never see all the designer pizzas on a menu in Rome before — it used to be just simple ingredients and individual sizes. Now you’ve got the big pies and big menu.”
The globalization of culture, often linked to consequential homogenization, was evident to Valenti during his trip. “There are lots of types of pizza, and all of them are good … but I think there’s a huge difference in taste between fresh ingredients and frozen, hand-tossed dough and machine-pressed.” Valenti has maintained a tradition yet responded sensitively to his demographic.
The name “Colenti’s” is a merging of “Valenti” and his business partner’s name, “Colagrecio.”
“Interesting trivia,” Valenti says, “all Italian last names originally reference the village the person is from. But when you put two names together, like Valenti and Colagrecio, you may get Colenti, but you’ll never find it on a map. Two Italian names equal a non-Italian name.”
Colenti’s Pizzeria is next to Barnes & Noble adjacent to Kukui Grove Center.
Visit Valenti tossing up the dough next to his 500-degree pizza oven — and taste a slice of paradise.