By Anni Caporuscio

Bouillabaise from the specials offerings. It’s a potpourri of seafood resting in a savory sweet tomato and onion based sauce to mop up with generous hunks of buttered baguette. Mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops and the bread make it a visceral experience to enjoy not only the eating, but the curating of each bite. The sea breeze made me do it.

I arrived in the morning, when the restaurant was closed, and had espresso with Giuseppe Avocadi. I recently vacationed in Rome, and I found myself re-immersed in Italian culture, which I would describe as a collection of colors and smells, the white tiles of the main floor, the way I sugared my espresso with a demitasse spoon, the deeply polished wood, the relaxed atmosphere, the folded linens in the corner, the brief sentences in Italian that sailed across the room.

Giuseppe spent 16 years as maître d’ on cruise ships, 10 of them in Hawai‘i, before a friend insisted he open a fine restaurant on Kaua‘i. He really knows service. From the greeting as you walk up the main staircase, to the crisp table linens, the formal wait staff (who memorizes an impressive list of specials), to the lit candles, and the invitation to really, really take your time and dine.

Giuseppe has owned and operated Café Portofino on Kaua‘i for 29 years, the last 15 of which, Portofino has been a waterfront staple of fine dining at Kalapaki Bay. To me, Portofino is a place for special occasions, like a birthday, anniversary or other celebration. But, let’s be honest, the daily beautiful sunset over the bay is special enough for a delicious Italian meal.

Portofino serves Northern classic Italian cuisine. “Classic” denotes that these sauces and flavors are common and to found in every region in Italy. Note the difference to “traditional,” which brings regional cooking to the table. “Classic” — the fine dishes you love with a particular chef’s flair. “Traditional” — your grandma’s table that can’t quite be recreated.

Linguine alla Puttanesca, served in a swirl of perfect linguine (i.e., not just piled on the plate, but with the sauce clinging to the noodles). Puttanesca is a tomato sauce made savory and salty by green olives, capers, and a bit of anchovy. Puttanesca is also characterized by spice, and this is the most pleasingly spicy Puttanesca I’ve tasted. For a little Google fun, search the meaning of “puttanesca”.

It goes without saying, Portofino’s kitchen makes all the stocks, bases, sauces, marinades and dressings. They are all made from the finest ingredients, and many are imported from Italy, a place famous for food quality. That’s the level of quality that Giuseppe has made us accustomed. For example, over espresso, Giuseppe proudly smiled and showed me home videos his nephew sent to him of his family farm making olive oil in a stone olive press. It’s ground into a progressively smoother and finer purple paste until it at last drips in a hazy golden stream from the apparatus; I had no idea how this magical stuff is produced.

For his efforts in quality and cuisine, Café Portofino has won numerous awards from notable names such as Open Table, Zagat, Best in Hawai‘i, Trip Expert, DiRoNA, and the likes.

Find Café Portofino at 3481 Hoolaulea Way, Lihu‘e, upstairs facing Kalapaki Bay. They’re open every evening from 5 – 9:30 p.m., with live music every night; five nights, the famous Giovane plays harp, on Wednesday, local legend Larry Rivera sings, and Thursday it’s dancing night.