Penne Pasta Cafe: You Get What You Pay For
By Vanessa Wolf
Family friendly, easy-on-the-budget dining options on Maui are a lot like the Hawaiian Monk Seal: rare.
Penne Pasta Cafe in Lahaina solidly fills that niche, although the food itself often underwhelms.
Noting the mention of “penne” in the name, we started with the Baked Penne NY ($10.95).
The menu describes it as a melange of pomodoro sauce, provolone, Parmesan, mozzarella and braised brisket.
As served, the pasta was soft to the point of squishy and we could only find three itty bitty pieces of what we assume was the brisket.
If that doesn’t sound like enough protein for your needs, don’t despair, as there was a metric ton of mozzarella on top.
Although the overall portion was good for the price, the sauce was quite sweet and rather soupy.
Will the Baked Penne NY transport your tastebuds to Valle d’Aosta, Calabria and Firenze or even just the Lower East Side?
Don’t count on it..
Will it downgrade you from hangry to carb coma?
Upon walking in, the overall impression is one of “Italian fast food joint,” which actually makes you wonder why there aren’t large-scale Italian fast food joints.
Anyway, the “eat and run” vibe is only boosted by the order-at-the-counter process, self-serve soda machine and TV set blaring overhead.
On all three visits said telly was tuned to the Travel Channel, and on two of those three visits, it was broadcasting Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
As a result, while working through our gummable pasta dish, utterances such as “this is horrific” and “very few images have been as disturbing to me as that one” emanated from above.
We were afraid to look, but maybe some kind of sports channel or even Akaku would be a better choice?
On our next trip we tried the ubiquitous Fried Calamari ($7.50).
It was exactly what you’d expect – breaded and crisply fried – and accompanied by two sauces.
The marinara dipping sauce is a perfect foil, but the white sauce… not so much. It looked like an aioli but tasted like mayo and pickles. If we had to guess, it’s tartar sauce that’s been through the the blender.
Save yourselves some change, Penne Pasta, and only serve the marinara. The white stuff detracts from an otherwise solid appetizer.
Speaking of which, the Pesto & 3 Cheeses 12” Pizza ($8.50) arrives in a pizza shape with a flatbread crust.
So long as you’re alright with that going in, the pie has good flavor and is a generous portion for the price.
A thin layer of pesto is topped with mozzarella and feta cheeses, fresh tomato chunks and chopped parsley.
It’s kind of an unorthodox combination, but it works.
Service is friendly and efficient, but more often than not, the person ringing up your order will be cooking it. This leads to an air of urgency, if not impatience. Pro tip: hang back and avoid eye contact until you know what you want.
The Spaghetti and Meatballs ($12.95) were a bit of a disappointment.
Thirteen bones gets you two average-size meatballs and a cup-ish of pasta.
The meatballs are dense with a predominant ground chuck flavor. The texture is fine, but they lack seasoning: garlic, basil, oregano, hot pepper, black pepper and Parmesan – any and all would be welcome.
The marinara portion was scanty and its salty blandness didn’t help matters much.
We would not be terribly surprised to find Chef Boyardee in back, toque and all. If that is, indeed, the case, please provide the man with some herbs and spices ASAP.
On our final visit we gave the Fettuccine Alfredo ($12.25) a whirl.
As alabaster as the frozen tundra, we renamed this dish Snow White.
Soft fettuccine noodles are topped with a dense mix of cream and butter.
It’s a solid start – the decadent sauce is properly prepared – but the dish desperately needs some garlic, Parmesan and black pepper to cut the rich blandness.
Originally founded by Mark Ellman of Mala and Honu renown, Ellman sold Penne Pasta Cafe in 2008, yet his mark remains on both the decor and the menu. Case in point: “Mark’s Caesar” can still be had for $6.25.
For better or worse, there’s the impression the restaurant has become something of a ghost ship: a once seaworthy vessel now worn, rudderless and perhaps even running on auto-pilot.
What’s up with the nautical metaphors?
Well, to put it simply, the food needs work.
Not a ton of work, but still.
Maui benefits from variety of menus and price points; places like Penne Pasta fill a relevant gap. Nonetheless, we’re worried their current offerings don’t have the chops to keep the doors open.
Perhaps a little revamp will result in food locals and visitors can really sink their al dente-craving teeth into. We imagine that would result in a win/win for all.
Penne Pasta is located at 180 Dickenson Street in Lahaina. They are open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week.