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Thursday, March 8, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Pizza, extra artistry, hold the delivery


Sometimes the craving strikes and second-best just won't do.

And when the object of desire is pizza, then forget about chains like To the Herbs; good old Shakey's certainly doesn't make the grade; and don't even think about one of those delivery jobs. With all due respect to Chicago and all other Italian enclaves spread across America, what we want is real Neapolitan pizza -- the way Hisayoshi Majima makes it.

Only authentic Neapolitan pizzas come out of the specially built, wood-fired oven at Isola.

You see, he's paid his dues. Meiji diplomats headed to Europe to discover things like diets and democracy. More recently, a flood of wannabe chefs and sommeliers have been setting off to Paris and Lyon, Bourgogne and Bordeaux to sit at the feet of the high priests of haute cuisine and oenology. In just the same way, Majima set off to the narrow alleys of Napoli to crack the secrets of the finest pizza in the world. He returned to Japan a full-fledged pizzaiolo.

It wasn't just his newly acquired skills that he brought back with him. As soon as he'd found the right premises, he sent for a gang of craftsmen adept in the skills of laying brick and ceramic tiles. The result: a beautiful, authentic, wood-fired pizza oven with gleaming red ceramic tiles, which you can see and admire and taste the fruits of in Majima's excellent little pizzeria, Isola, tucked away in the residential back streets of Shirokane.

It's a small place with whitewashed walls, casual and convivial. Dominating everything is the oven with its welcoming glow and aura of aromatic warmth. What with the space set aside for the backswing of the long, wooden pizza paddle and the large marble counter on which the dough is prepared, it feels as if the three rows of tables have been crammed in almost as an afterthought. Little budget has been set aside for furniture or furnishings: the chairs are hard and uncomfortable; the only decoration is the clutter of empty wine bottles high on a shelf; the cases of wine stacked at the back double as a cloakroom.

But these are trivial matters easily overlooked in the pursuit of prime pizza. There are a dozen or so on the main menu, plus another five listed as specials of the day. They range from the classic simplicity of the marinara (1,600 yen) and Margherita (1,900 yen) to more elaborate -- and, it must be noted, pricier -- numbers, notably the gamberi (prawns), quatro formaggio (four cheeses) and uovo de merluzzo (cod's roe) (all 2,800 yen).

No matter how wonderful the oven, you can't make great pizza unless the dough is good and the timing is spot on. This is the prime lesson and, although an underling does the hard, hot oven work, Majima is always at hand to oversee the process. He uses top-quality flour flecked with bran, mixed with olive oil and leavened to just the right consistency. The resulting dough is formed by hand, sprinkled with seasonings and deftly slotted into the oven.

One minute later the pizza is ready. The crust is golden around the edges, slightly freckled with dark brown or black. The base is beautifully soft and chewy. The molten cheese oozes into the other toppings, releasing a fragrant steamy aroma.

It is a work of art, best exemplified by the two top-of-the-line pizzas, the pescatore (seafood) and cincinielli (whitebait, shira-uo) (both 3,000 yen). With its depth of contrasting flavors, textures and aromas, this latter is our current favorite. The delicacy of the tiny, plump whitefish melds with the salty creaminess of the mozzarella cheese and the crisp yeastiness of the pizza base. Unless you are prepared to jump on the next Alitalia flight, this is as close to perfection as you will ever need to get.

Isola does more than just pizzas, but it must be the only Italian joint in town that doesn't offer pasta in any shape or form. What they do have is good, simple antipasti and salads, plus larger offerings such as swordfish steak, oven-roast fish and grilled lamb with rosemary. You may prefer to share these main dishes or forego them altogether, since no adult with half a taste bud is ever satisfied with anything less than one whole pizza each.

Majima has used his knowledge of the territory to assemble a good cellar of wines, many from lesser-known provenances, though again priced at Shirokane levels. The desserts are fine, too. But many prefer to progress directly to the grappa, for which there is a special menu listing eight of them, including the rarefied Sassicaia (1,200 yen per small snifter).

An evening at Isola is not hugely expensive, just more than you would usually think of laying out for a simple meal of pizza, wine and a few trimmings. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Since plenty of people agree with this assessment, reservations are definitely needed at peak times.

Isola Isola Nishimura Bldg. 1F, 6-17-2 Shirokane, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5447-2733
Open: Monday-Saturday 6-11:30 p.m., Sunday & holidays 6-11:30 p.m.; Lunch: Saturday, Sunday & holidays noon-2:30 p.m.
Nearest stations: Ebisu (JR & Hibiya lines), Hiroo (Hibiya Line), Meguro (JR & Hibiya lines) or Shirokanedai (Namboku Line)
How to get there:From Hiroo, take a taxi to the Ebisu-Sanchome crossing and turn left (coming from Ebisu, go straight over). At the first light, take the street running to the right at an acute angle. Isola is on the right after 150 meters. From Meguro or Shirokanedai, go to the bottom of the Puratina-dori section of Gaien-nishi-dori. Isola is 150 meters down the first street off to the left (as you face uphill). You can ask them to fax you a map.
What works: Top pizza, unpretentious attitude
What doesn't:Top prices, uncomfortable chairs
Number of seats:36
Price per head: 4,500 yen (plus drinks)
Drinks: Beer from 600 yen; wine from 900 yen/ glass, 3,800 yen/bottle; grappa from 900 yen
Credit cards:Most
BGM: Latin pops from cable radio
Language:Japanese/Italian/English menus; some English spoken

So does Isola make the best pizza in the city? It's a tough call. We have other favorites, although not with such a central location. We would not hesitate to argue the merits of Angelo Cozzolino's authentically home-spun pizzeria La Befana, down in Shimokitazawa (as reviewed in these pages two years ago).

5-31-3 Daita, Setagaya-ku; tel: (03) 3411-9500. Open daily noon-2 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m.

If Naka-Meguro is on your beat, try squeezing into Savoy (they say it the Italian way: "Sav-wah"), a super little place where, as their sign proclaims, they specialize in pasta, pizza and the big-band swing music of the 1940s and '50s. You'll need to reserve here as well, as they run out of pizza dough early in the evening.

2-7-10 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3714-5160. Open daily 6-10 p.m.

For Italian cooking in Daikanyama, try the new, masculine Hiro II.

Italian restaurants in Daikanyama are two-a-penny these days. But our interest in the new Hiro II (pronounced "Hiro Doo-ay," with a Tuscan accent) was piqued by a quote in the vernacular press, in which owner Hiro Yamada compared his first operation (in Minami-Aoyama) to a cross-dresser because it looks effeminate even though the underlying cooking is masculine. By contrast, he said, Hiro II is male through and through.

It's true the interior is less fussy than many other Tokyo ristoranti, and that the waiting staff is all male. But even so, this is Daikanyama: When we dropped in for lunch the other day, women outnumbered men by five to one. It's an older demographic, too, since prices are well above the basic La Boheme level.

Hiro II occupies the large basement space that was formerly Da Salvatore. Yamada has stripped down the interior, keeping a simple white and off-pink color scheme and installing a massive flower arrangement under the dome in the center of the room. There's a small bar set behind a trellis of wood and glass, and a comforting bustle and clang emerges from the kitchen glimpsed off at the rear. The sound system plays a European radio station specializing in bossa jazz.

The waiters are numerous and, because they are underemployed, overfussy. One of them is assigned to keeping you plied with their good, fresh home-baked rolls and focaccia. But there's a limit to how much you need his services when you have ordered the basic lunch menu (1,200 yen), which consists only of pasta, dessert and coffee.

But everything we were served was prepared with a touch of class: the aforementioned breads, with top-grade extra virgin olive oil as a dip; the pasta, a simple spaghetti with a tasty, satisfying minced-meat dressing that was described on the menu as "sausage"; and, to round things off, orange compote on a lemongrass jelly, which was delicate but certainly not effeminate.

There are also more elaborate lunch courses. The standard set dinner is four courses for 6,500 yen. Based on this preliminary reconnaissance, Hiro II is certainly good enough to warrant an in-depth exploration.

Hiro II, Central Daikanyama B1, 14-23 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 5728-4700. Open noon-2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Closed Monday. From Daikanyama Station, walk through the Address complex and turn right once you're out on the street. The stairs down to Hiroo II are on the right, shortly after La Boheme. Most cards accepted. Japanese menu only.


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