Pau Hana Patrol: Formaggio
BY MINDY PENNYBACKER / firstname.lastname@example.org
Formaggio Wine Bar in Market City has been a popular hangout in Kapahulu since its founding in 2004 by Wes Zane, who still owns Formaggio Grill in Kailua.
A new owner, Niraj Maskey, took over Formaggio Wine Bar in 2012; Maskey and chef Guillermo Camacho have stayed faithful to the brand.
Beyond a wine bar, Formaggio is a full-scale Mediterranean restaurant offering 45 vintages, including 30 wines by the glass.
FORMAGGIO WINE BAR
Market City Shopping Center
2919 Kapiolani Blvd.
>> wines by the glass, $5
Formaggio Wine Bar sits next to another oenophile oasis, Fujioka’s Wine Times, on Market City’s lower level entered from Kaimuki Avenue.
Pushing open its glass door on a mid-March Friday at 6 p.m., my companion and I had the sensation of entering the mouth of a long tunnel not unlike the Thurston Lava Tube, only furnished.
No one rushed to greet us; that was a relief, allowing us to amble toward the back at our own speed, enjoying the surroundings.
The color scheme was warm, predominantly red, ochre and dark brown. Above the long, L-shaped wooden bar hung yellow shaded lamps and a cheerful mask of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-faced god.
Garlicky, cheesy smells beckoned us on.
Although it was a Friday, the place was nearly empty, allowing us our pick of wooden tables and chairs of different heights. (All the chairs have padded seats.)
We paused by a table that was pizza-parlor, stand-up height, but I wondered aloud if, after tippling, I might topple.
“Sometimes people do fall off the high chairs,” said a friendly waiter who turned out to be the owner, Maskey.
We found a perfect table for two along the back wall. As we studied the menu, the place filled up with local people of all ages, in couples and groups.
By 6:45, the wine bar was nearly full. There is live music of the indie folk variety on weekends, adding to the atmosphere of a Left Bank or Greenwich Village cafe. The acoustics are well-balanced: At 7 p.m. a solo girl singer with a pure clear voice took the mike beside us, accompanying herself on guitar, but we could still converse without raising our voices.
As soon as we were seated, we were given tall glasses of water. Since it was one of those two-blanket March nights with low temperatures and cool winds, it felt too cold for a beer (bottles of Peroni are $3.99 at happy hour, $4.99 after) or a pretty green Formaggio’s Mojito Delight. And $9 for a mojito (regularly $10) didn’t seem like much of a deal.
We chose wine, $5 a glass during happy hour. My companion, who wanted red wine “to warm up,” pronounced the Sycamore Lane Cabernet Sauvignon “just right.” I had a pale, crisp Sycamore Lane Chardonnay in a sparkling clean glass, instantly lifting my spirits.
The happy hour wines also included BV Chardonnay, BV Merlot and house red. After 7:30 p.m., the Sycamore Lane wines are $7 and the BV and house wines $8.
We felt disappointed not to have more happy hour choices. That said, however, I sipped my friend’s cabernet after polishing off my chardonnay, and it was so good that I ordered a glass of the same.
The other happy hour special cocktail was a Moscato Sunrise ($8 vs. $9 post-happy hour), the sweet white wine topped with pinot noir.
Clearly people come here to eat as well as drink: Every tabletop was covered with plates of food, including some good deals Although the menu is mostly Mediterranean, there were a couple of Mexican and Asian tastes.
Steak tacos were $9.95 (normally $13.99) and a chicken curry bowl was $7.50 ($14.99 for the larger dinner size).
From previous visits, I associated Formaggio with rich pasta dishes such as their trademark lobster mac and cheese and was sorry to see no pasta on the happy hour menu.
A plus: Generous mesclun side salads come with many happy hour plates. We realized too late that we hadn’t had to order the mixed green salad ($4.99 vs. $8.99), which was only sparsely embellished with sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts and goat cheese.
The pizzas were the best deal. We shared a full-size Margherita Pizza ($8.95, normally $12.99), its crispy crust spread with tomato sauce, mozzarella and sliced fresh tomato rounds. We also loved the mini Wild Mushroom Pizza ($5.50 vs. $14.95). Both pizzas came with salads.
The steak tacos were large and soft, falling open around generous heaps of meat, green cabbage, purple onion and bits of red pepper with a creamy dressing, wrapped in puffy tortillas that resembled pita bread. My companion praised the sliced steak as “really thin and crispy,” comparing the texture to bacon. After she ate one of two steak tacos in the serving, she pronounced herself full and refused to take another bite.
We had the second taco wrapped for her roommate, and I confronted the Turkey Pesto Panini ($5.95, vs. the regular-menu turkey pesto dish at $14.99) on my own.
Although the slices of turkey were freshly roasted, the open-faced sandwich was a little too bland and dry. After one bite, I ate the turkey and left the bread.
Overall, while a bit heavy on bread, the happy hour menu’s lack of deep-fried or overly sauced food was a relief. We were pleased that the kitchen at Formaggio demonstrates an innately Italian confidence that lets ingredients, particularly vegetables, stand out and be tasted in simple dishes.
The service was not only not pushy but — a rare quality in America — actually discreet. As in a French cafe, we were left alone to talk and eat and drink at our leisure. At the same time, we never felt abandoned. Attentive servers responded to the slightest signal.
“I would totally come here again. It’s very local,” my companion said, looking around. “And it’s got a good wine cellar.”
If you like bread and wine or tacos and mojitos and unpretentious but professional service, you can’t go wrong here.
Tucked into its hidden corner at the busy intersection of Kapiolani, Kapahulu and Kaimuki, Formaggio Wine Bar is a great local hideaway — and getaway.