When I was growing up, going out for Italian food in Tokyo basically meant going for pizza. But in the decades since, Japanese chefs have taken Italian cuisine to a different level — not only in terms of variety and quality but also in presentation.
These days, you can find top-notch Italian restaurants in most major Tokyo neighborhoods, some boasting one or more stars from Michelin.
Meanwhile, the standard pizzerias of yesteryear in Japan these days offer not just classic Italian tastes but also innovative creations, such as pizza topped with sea urchin or whitebait.
Given Japan’s love affair with Italian cuisine and devotion to locally sourced ingredients, it is perhaps unsurprising that someone would come up with the idea of opening a restaurant serving Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine.
Il Ghiottone, which means “glutton” is the brainchild of chef and proprietor, Yasuhiro Sasajima, who believes that using local produce is at the heart of Italian cooking.
An Osaka native, Sasajima initially wanted to become a designer but changed course after working part time at a restaurant in Osaka while still a high school student. After stints at several Italian restaurants in Japan and Italy, he opened Il Ghiottone in Kyoto in 2002.
Sasajima says that the idea of using local ingredients from Kyoto came when he asked himself: “What if Kyoto were a province of Italy?”
Il Ghiottone in Kyoto is strictly focused on local produce but his newer restaurant in Tokyo sources ingredients from all over Japan and other parts of the world.
Yet, in a move that highlights its commitment to its Japanese roots, Il Ghiottone in the Tokia building of Marunouchi, central Tokyo, was completely refurbished recently and, with its abundant use of bamboo, looks more like a Japanese kaiseki fine-dining establishment than an Italian restaurant.
The first dish in our course menu on a recent evening was described as fritto of bamboo shoot and hotaru ika, or firefly squid, with a bagna cauda sauce.
The fritto – deep-fried morsels — came wrapped in bamboo sheath, which I peeled off to discover two blackened blobs, which looked more like charred cinders than anything edible.
The bamboo shoot and hotaru ika had been deep-fried in batter containing a pinch of edible charcoal powder, which gave the dish an element of surprise, but no discernible impact on the taste.
What made the dish exciting taste-wise — and therefore made a good case for utilizing elements of Japanese cuisine in Italian cooking — was the addition of sansho, or prickly ash, an aromatic spice, which together with the bagna cauda sauce, livened up the fritto and lightened the overall taste. Sansho is often used in Japanese cuisine to add a bit of zing to dishes, such as tamagodofu, or savoury egg custard, which often comes garnished with a sansho leaf, and grilled eel, which is invariably accompanied by sansho powder. But I had never encountered it in western cuisine, and found it an inspired touch.
The second course was a small sushi rice ball topped with raw shiro ebi, or white shrimp, caviar seasoned with olive oil and wasabi, which came on a large sheet of nori, or dried seaweed.
The combination of the traditional Japanese ingredients — the slippery raw shrimp and wasabi — with the olive oil-dressed caviar made for a refreshingly new taste.
Every dish at Il Ghiottone is immaculately prepared to please the eye, but the “salad” that appeared as the third course was one of the most aesthetically stunning elements of our meal.
This was a salad of bonito sashimi from Wakayama prefecture in southwestern Japan, a fritto of taranome (fatsia sprouts), assorted mountain vegetables, spring greens and a slice of tomato topped with tomato foam and accompanied by powdered nanohana (rapeseed) gelato.
The slight bitterness of the taranome was the perfect accompaniment to the bonito and vegetables.
Then came a rolled cake of endo mame (garden peas), which combined Japanese and Italian ingredients with remarkable effect.
The cake itself was made with endo mame and stuffed with a cream concoction made of ricotta cheese, crab meat and endo mame, while the sauce was made from crab miso. An accompanying green powder on the side was made with dried garden peas and salt. The cake was soft and light and the cheese filling was delicate and beautifully flavored.
The next course was a soup, which used ingredients typical of Japanese cuisine – clams, nanohana (rapeseed), red snapper and shirako (or fish millet) – but with a decidedly Italian twist. It was wonderfully light and flavorful without being salty.
Our first pasta dish was spaghetti with ama ebi (sweet shrimp) and wakegi onion (scallion), karasumi (dried mullet roe) from Italy and shichimi, which is a blend of seven peppery spices – again an interesting combination of Japanese and Italian ingredients.
By this time I was beginning to feel that the restaurant was turning me into the glutton definition of “Il Ghiottone,” but our second pasta dish – a tagliolini with slices of white asparagus, pork sausage and truffles, looked so good, I couldn’t resist it.
In terms of artistic presentation, the highlight of our meal was the main course of charcoal-grilled Iberico pork with seasonal vegetables, two types of puréed beets and Tasmanian mustard.
To close the meal I chose the cheese plate and smoked tea – a soothing finale to a masterfully concocted meal. And yes, I left feeling I had lived up to the meaning of Il Ghiottone.
Address : 1F Tokyo Building TOKIA
2-7-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tel : 03-5220-2006
Website : http://www.ilghiottone.com/
Lunch : 11:00-14:00
Dinner : 18:00-20:30 (last orders)
Lunch : Y3,500~
Dinner Course : Y10,000