Pueo’s Osteria serves up Italian-inspired fare for the dinner crowd and hungry night owls.

Tucked above the Big Isle’s Kohala coast in Waikoloa Village is where you get fabulous Italian-inspired food in a relaxed atmosphere. Th ink made-to-order bruschetta, house-made pastas, brick oven pizzas, wine-braised short ribs and savory veal parmesan.

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One of Pueo's Osteria's secondi course items features pasta made in-house. Photo courtesy Pueo's Osteria.

Pueo’s Osteria is a culinary adventure grounded in Hawai‘i, but the flavors take to you to Italy where osterie (plural for osteria) dot rural villages. Known as an Italian gathering place serving locally sourced specialties and wine, an osteria typically caters to the local folk, often those looking for refreshment after work.

And that’s what Pueo’s Osteria does. Named after the endemic Hawaiian owl, the pueo, the eatery is where “the night owls meet.” It opens 5 p.m. nightly, serving dinner till 9 p.m. and a tasty “bar” menu till midnight that features build-your-own brick oven pizzas, truffled lobster mac and cheese and local beef Tuscan burgers with fries.

“People don’t come in here just to drink,” says Chef Jim Babian, co-proprietor. “Everyone gets something to eat.”

The award-winning executive chef, who has cooked at multiple resorts along the nearby Kohala Coast, opened Pueo’s Osteria in August 2013 with wife Christine. The couple saw a need for a restaurant where they live.

“Waikoloa Village is a great little community, with lots of families and people who work down on the [Kohala] Coast,” details Chef Jim. “Some of them work late and need a place to unwind; a comfortable place where they can meet friends and have a bite to eat at approachable prices.”

Noting the response from hospitality industry workers has been great, Chef Jim says Kohala Coast visitors are also making the 15-minute drive up to the Village to enjoy the delicious food and high-energy vibe at Pueo’s Osteria.

Christine, a realtor, designed the cozy restaurant’s interior with warm Tuscan colors, using Venetian stucco, wood-style floors, arches, Chiavari chairs and a gleaming granite bar that sits next to a semi-open kitchen. A large, communal table made of monkeypod accommodates gathering night owls while upbeat music lends to the engaging atmosphere. A retractable wall protects alfresco dining from blustery trade winds.

And while the atmosphere is inviting, so are the hosts. Chef Jim, Christine or GM Kurt Umehara walk around the dining room “touching tables,” to ensure every patron is happy and well cared for. Chef feels a happy guest experience is the key to success.

“My dad, Dickie Babian, always told me, ‘When you open a restaurant, all the guests will tell you what to do. But at the end of the day, you need them; they don’t need you. So, you better listen.'”

Relying on 30 years of culinary experience, Chef Jim’s philosophy for food is regional, seasonal and artisanal. A proponent of locally sourced ingredients, Chef buys produce, mushrooms, meats and seafood from a long list of local farmers, ranchers and aquaculturists. These products make Pueo’s menu “grounded” in Hawai‘i. To offer authentic Italian cuisine, he partners fresh, local ingredients with the finest imported Italian products, such as richly flavored Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar, San Marzano tomatoes, wheels of parmiggiano reggiano—he goes through 80 pounds of the cheese a week—and powder-fine, “OO” flour, to name a few.

In fact, Pueo’s kitchen pantry is stocked with the who’s who of DOP or DOCG products, meaning they bear a quality assurance label (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) designating their place of origin. Because these Italian products hail from distinct regions that produce a signature flavor and texture, they can be depended on for superior quality.

“We start with these great ingredients and use cooking techniques and recipes that highlight them,” says Chef Jim, who is half Sicilian. “While our food is Italian, we honor our island home by using many local ingredients. We also jazz it up a bit for the American palate … and make it better.”

The No. 1 selling entrée is the Chicken Milanese. Lightly breaded to order, it’s all-natural chicken breast in a light, lemon caper sauce that’s accompanied with a salad of arugula, grape tomatoes and Parmesan. The dish is popular solo for health-wise diners and also goes well with any of the many antipasti (appetizers), or primi “first course” pastas dishes.

The care in the authenticity of creating the pastas and sauces is at the Italian core of Pueo’s. The house-made pastas are featured in a trio of primi dishes that are true comfort food: gnocchi with gorgonzola, truffles, cream and pistachio nuts; tagliolini with zucchini, spinach, green beans, roasted peppers, onion, pesto and pine nuts; and cannelloni al forno with chicken, pumante (sun-dried tomatoes), spinach, ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino and besciamella (white sauce).

Artisan Rustichella pasta, made in Italy with Italian wheat, is sourced for other delectable primi offerings. Since the early 1900s, Rustichella d’Abruzzo has been making pasta extruded through hand-carved, bronze dies to create a rustic and textured noodle that is air-dried for optimum flavor. Chef Jim uses this old-style pasta for his Rigatoni Bolognese with veal, pork and local beef topped with parmiggiano reggiano; Penne Alla Vodka with prosciutto, mushrooms, San Marzano tomatoes, basil and cream; and Shrimp Positano, featuring wild-caught shrimp, thin cappellini pasta, arugula, pumante, pink sauce and fresh basil.

Another popular entrée or secondi course item is the Brick Oven Eggplant Rollatini—its tender, crusty texture melts in your mouth. Breaded eggplant is stuffed with ricotta filling, marinara, mozzarella and distinctly flavored pecorino cheese from Rome. This newer menu item is not only available for dinner, but also in a smaller antipasti portion as part of the “Eight for Eight” Early Owl Happy Hour Specials. Also on the Eight for Eight menu is Mozzarella Fritta with Marinara, Kale Salad, Spaghetti Bolognese and Chicken Picatta.

There’s a full line of 12-inch pizzas, in addition to build-your-own choices.

For dolce (dessert), Pueo’s offers homemade biscottis, tiramisu and a gluten-free chocolate hazelnut torte. The restaurant accommodates patrons with food sensitivities and gluten-free pastas are available too.

A fun and innovative wine list highlights unique varietals from different regions of Italy and California. Find Coltibuono “Cetamura” Chianti from Tuscany and an amazing Fontanafredda Barbera hailing from Northern Italy.

Pueo’s Osteria is located in the Waikoloa Highlands Center. Reservations are recommended, 339-7566. For the full menu, which changes every few months, visit, www.pueososteria.com..