Japanese ramen may be one of the hottest culinary trends in the U.S., but back in Japan, it’s Italian cuisine. When people tire of raw fish? They turn to Italy. Throughout the nation (not just in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka), you’ll discover food that will make you think you’re in Italy—but it’s made with local ingredients and an attention to detail for which the Japanese are justifiably famous.
This is no gimmick or passing fancy. People appreciate what they are eating, and have a depth of knowledge about Italy’s regional cuisines. And it’s not just small places or pizzerias that captivate in Japan—upscale restaurants in Tokyo such as Argento Aso, Piacere, and Bulgari, and refined places in Kyoto like Kiln, Scorpione, and Il Ghiottone demonstrate that the Italian food you can enjoy in Japan competes with what you find in Italy (Japan lays claim to a quality supply of fish, shellfish and vegetables, as well as strong knife skills among its line cooks).
The two cuisines share a lot of common elements, notably an emphasis on seasonality and simplicity. Here, our picks for the Italian food to check out in Japan.
In Tokyo, the pizza at Seirinkan (2-6-4 Kamimeguro Meguro, Tokyo, +81-3-3714-5160) can compete with pies anywhere in the world because Susumu Kakinuma, the fanatical chef, makes only two pies, a Margherita and a marinara, using Japanese mozzarella and a nightly devotion that’s nonpareil.
The Pizza Bar, on the 38th floor of the plush Mandarin Oriental, is designed like a sushi bar. Guests sit on stools (or at tables) and can enjoy a variety of pies (we like the classic Bufala) made under the supervision of Italy native Daniele Cason.
Kyoto just welcomed Mercato, a new and exciting pizzeria (-1 Kyoka-kan, Suja-ku, Shokai-cho, Shimogyo, Kyoto; +81-75-353-4777). Here, chef Chihiro Togo is making great pies and first-rate salads.
In the small and famous hot springs town of Yamanaka, on a small street, look for trattoria Alla Contadina (3-29 Bessho-machi, +81-761-77-5214). Chef Koji Sakamoto, like many Japanese chefs cooking Italian food in Japan, trained in Italy. He worked in Mestre, just outside of Venice, and his pasta with crab is stellar and tastes bona fide authentic.
On the relatively remote Sado Island, the country’s sixth largest, I ate at a place called Aji-Sai, which has both Japanese and Italian menus. It’s here that I saw just how much the Japanese have embraced this cuisine: people ate their pizza with chopsticks.