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Sunday, March 10, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Anyway you slice, it's real Roma


The first thing you see when you walk through the door of Il Pentito is the oven. It's a monolithic, red-brick structure, like a relic from some Industrial Revolution foundry. A massive, dominating presence, it seems to take up half the premises, an impression reinforced by the way the tables are crammed together in careless proximity, as if accommodating customers were an afterthought.

Il Pentito owner Satoshi Ikuta shows how its done: the perfect pizza. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

A warm glow fills the room, intermingled with the aroma of wood smoke. The appetizing savor of fresh-baked dough tugs insistently at your nostrils, lest you forget what it is you have gone there for. Little chance of that: Il Pentito has but one raison d'e^tre, and that is to make, bake and dispense pizza.

And it does so in a setting that is truly one of a kind. The interior is so perfectly dingy and patinated that it's hard to believe you're on the ground floor of a modern multistory apartment block in Yoyogi, not inside a back-street eatery under the railway tracks, say, of an industrial suburb of Rome.

Domino's Pizza, this ain't.

The illusion is so perfect, it's uncanny. Trashy Italian pops blare out of the speakers. The off-beige paint is enlivened by photos, posters and Serie A soccer memorabilia. The ceiling over the door is coated in yellowing pages cut from Italian newspapers. The tables are made of a plastic material that doesn't look much like marble. A tiny alcove in the outside wall by the door holds a Virgin Mary and some plastic flowers.

Comin' at ya, another round of paradise.

Owner Satoshi Ikuta is not just a pizza enthusiast, he is an Italophile to the umpteenth degree. He's the guy with the goatee beard and tractor driver's baseball cap whom you see toiling away in front of that fiery furnace. His passion is not, however, for the luxurious thick-crust pizza developed and perfected in Naples (and subsequently copied throughout the world) but the more delicate style preferred in Ikuta's adopted hometown, Rome.

The contrast is significant. Whereas Neapolitan pizza is bready and substantial, the Roman version is fine and crisp at the edges, with thinner, less elaborate toppings -- more a light snack than a square meal in itself. The dough is rolled out as fine as a matzo cracker, and it acquires a similar coloration in the oven. Flecked golden brown, with specks of black here and there, Ikuta's pizza is simple and honest, a very different species from those found anywhere else in town.

You can choose from some 13 different varieties, ranging from the classic Marinara (tomato, oregano and plenty of garlic) to some seriously complex combinations such as Ikuta's trademark original, the eponymous Pentito pizza. This is a splendid creation, on which a thin layer of tomato sauce is topped with mozzarella, mascarpone, spicy pepeverde sausage and slices of prosciutto.

The Morgellina, with its savory mix of anchovies and slivers of zucchini, is tasty, if salty. But most people's favorite appears to be the Cappricioso, which, alongside chopped olives and artichokes, features a whole, soft-cooked egg set in the very center, adding an extra dimension of flavor and texture, albeit tending toward sogginess if you don't devour it fast enough.

These pizzas are so light and easy to eat, only the abstemious will be satisfied with less than a whole serving each. But they are priced very reasonably, with even the top-of-the-line varieties no more than 1,700 yen apiece. No matter how many there are in your party, however, ignore the insistence of the waitress to order more than a couple at a time, otherwise you will find they arrive within seconds of each other and end up turning cold before you can eat them.

Do not expect to spend long and leisurely evenings over multicourse meals at Il Pentito. The spotlight is so focused on pizza that everything else on the menu is ancillary. The mixed antipasto plate is drab and disappointing -- just a few cuts of prosciutto and salami; some olives, dried tomatoes and artichokes from the jar; and a few cherry tomatoes sliced in half.

We enjoyed the salad of rocket greens, Parmesan and bresaola (paper-thin cuts of delicious air-cured beef), which you season to taste with cruets of oil and vinegar brought to the table. The other salads, though, are rudimentary. However, we can highly recommend the zuppa di fageoli. The white canelloini beans are cooked down with herbs until they are so soft and tender they melt under your tongue. The liquid is thick and rich, but there is so little of it left it's hardly accurate to call it a "soup."

The wine list is equally perfunctory -- just four reds, three whites and a couple of sparkling wines -- but you won't find a cheaper selection. Direct your attention to the Vitiano, a Merlot/Cabernet/Sangiovese blend from Umbria that serves as just the right accompaniment for this kind of food. It may be the priciest bottle on the list but, at a mere 3,600 yen, it's a veritable steal.

Ikuta has no pretensions toward gourmet refinement, just the warm, honest output of his pizza oven. At the same time, though, Il Pentito serves up a remarkable slice of Roman back-street life. There is nowhere like it in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, down in Yokohama, we enjoyed a very different kind of cuisine last weekend. Chef Julian Serrano, one of the most respected names in contemporary American cuisine, is currently in Japan for a short stint as guest chef at the Pan Pacific Hotel, in Yokohama's Minato Mirai district. Serrano is in charge of Picasso, considered by many as the top restaurant in Las Vegas, and one of the best in the United States, thanks to his melding of French technique with influences from his native Spain and North American visual flair.

We spent a wonderful evening, slowly making our way through the 8,500 yen menu degustacion, which features five delectable courses (plus amuse bouche, dessert and coffee), the highlight of which was Serrano's roast lamb encrusted in black truffles. Serving sizes are considerably less substantial than you would receive in Las Vegas, but this is still an excellent opportunity to sample the range of Serrano's cooking.

Julian Serrano will be at the Cafe Tosca, on the second floor of the Pan Pacific Hotel, until March 20. Cafe Tosca, Pan Pacific Hotel 2F, Queen's Square, Yokohama; tel: (045) 682-2218. Dinner served 5:30-10 p.m. Menus 7,000 yen and 8,500 yen. A selection of wines by the glass paired with each course is available for an extra 1,800 yen and 2,800 yen respectively.


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