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Friday, June 3, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Premium pizza in a spiced-up setting


The hunt for the perfect pizza, much like the surfer's search for the ultimate wave, is an unending quest. That doesn't mean we are never satisfied. On occasion we have come tantalizingly close to achieving our goal. And for that we must thank the good folks at Isola.

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Pizzaiolo Shigenori Gotou

When, five years ago, they fired up the handsome, hand-built, Neapolitan oven at their original shop in Shirokanedai, they weren't the first in Tokyo to serve premium wood-fired pizzas. But their attention to flavor and quality threw down the gauntlet and set a standard that few other places have been able to match.

Unfortunately that applied to their own operations too. As they spawned offshoots, first in Ginza, then Marunouchi, Azabu and further afield, it soon became clear that a wonderful concept -- like even the finest pizza dough -- can easily be stretched too thin. The problem was especially grave at Isola's outlet near Yebisu Garden Place. There was nothing wrong with the actual pizzas; the place just seemed boring, formulaic, corporate.

Clearly we weren't the only ones who saw it that way. Late last year the place was given a major revamp -- a new name, a new crew, some eye-popping fresh decor, and a whole new lease of life. Now known as Da Pasquale, it has lightened up, jettisoned much of its former stiffness and, most critically, introduced a substantial menu of superior trattoria cucina to match the already excellent pizza.

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Chef Hiroshi Oshima

Upstairs the look remains modern and spacious, with a capacious glass-fronted wine cellar spanning the best part of one wall. But on the ground floor the transformation has been radical. The walls have been painted sky-blue and vermilion, and decorated with Euro-manga figures of flying pizzas and winged hams, madcap diners, most of them sozzled, and flames lapping up around the red-tiled pizza oven that stands proud and bulbous at the back of the room. Bland it is not.

And neither is the menu. New chef Hiroshi Oshima previously worked at L'Estasi, close by Roppongi Hills. Besides honing his skills under the tutelage of Claudio Sadler's crew, he also acquired the nickname Pasquale, courtesy of his Italian colleagues. Meanwhile, pizzaiolo-in-residence, Shigenori Gotou, mans the oven, perfuming the room with exquisite, warming aromas of oak wood mingled with fresh-baked pizza dough.

On both floors the menu is the same. So pick your decor, and select your dinner to suit. Most people seem to follow the standard procedure, from antipasti, through pasta and main course to dessert. But there's nothing to stop you from just ordering a pizza and a glass of wine. Or to do as we did, mixing and matching, first deciding what pizzas we wanted and then constructing the rest of our meal around that. Whichever approach you take, though, be sure to ask for the hand-written (Japanese only) menu of the day, which supplements the regular bilingual list. That is where you find all of Oshima's most creative dishes -- plus some exceptional pizzas.

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The colorful decor of the ground floor

We have never tried his pasta -- the pizza has won out all three times we've visited. But his antipasti and main dishes are fantastic, especially the super-fresh seafood. We started with a plate of affetati misti -- a selection of delectable salami, prosciutto and soft, fatty brianzetta; followed by a plate of juicy asparagus alla Milanese, with plenty of rich butter; and fritti of flowering zucchini, enrobed with a very light batter and oozing molten mozzarella.

Gotou's pizzas are all excellent. Besides his four regular, year-round pizzas (margherita, quattro formaggio, etc.), he usually has seven daily specials, with toppings ranging from smoked mozzarella cheese or shiro-ebi (almost transparent white shrimp with very crunchy shells) to homemade salsiccia sausage with green peppers (recommended), or even shirasu (tiny whitebait) with ao-nori seaweed. Just about any topping is going to taste good on dough this tasty, baked just right, so it's flecked a delicate brown but still moist and chewy on the inside.

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But there were two on that list that stood out, demanding to be tasted. The first was uni pizza, with rich blobs of soft Hokkaido urchin, sensuous but quite understated against all that dough. The second was even more unusual -- thick slices of Japanese black truffle, fresh from Nagano and redolent with an intense flavor we have rarely experienced from imported European fungi. They were served with soft-cooked egg, quickly mixed together as soon as the plate reached the table. Such decadence, such flavor -- this, surely, is as getting perilously close to pizza nirvana.

Food like this requires suitable wine. Again, don't be fobbed off by the one-page list of suggestions of the day. Ask for the full wine tome and you will fine plenty of choice in the 5 yen,000-7,000 range, as well as far pricier bottles. Along with many of the usual suspects, their cellar holds some interesting, lesser-known wines from the south of Italy. We picked out the Villa Matilde from Falerno del Massico (a small DOC in Campania), and were very pleased with its vigor, depth and character.

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The only disappointments in our meal were the sad news that the chocolate gateau had sold out, and the less than exciting fruit-tomato sorbet we chose instead. But that was a minor blip at the end of a very satisfactory meal.

* * *

If you fancy your hand as a budding pizzaiolo, the Isola group has its own training program. But for a briefer, hands-on introduction to the art of pizza making, Gotou offers occasional classes at Da Pasquale, the next one scheduled for the afternoon of July 10.

* * *

Premium pizza has now also touched down in Nihonbashi. Da Cibo, in the still-new Coredo Building, could be considered a sister restaurant to Da Pasquale, although it does not hit quite the same high notes in terms of quality. Safety regulations require that its oven has to be gas-fired rather than wood. But even so, it produces a very respectable pizza.

It also has a friendly laidback feel, from the blackboard at the door proclaiming "Napoli ti amo (Naples, I love you)" to the pictures of Italian pin-ups and soccer stars on the wall. In the evening it's packed with the after-work office crowd, mostly couples but also a good scattering of solo diners, both male and female, generating almost as much buzz and laughter as at a shitamachi izakaya.

Pizzeria Da Cibo, Coredo Nihonbashi Bldg. 4F, 1-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3272-6855; www.dacibo.jp Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5:30-10 p.m. (last order). Nearest station: Nihonbashi.

Da Pasquale
3-28-3 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5475-1761 www.pasquale.jp
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order); 5:30-10 p.m. (last order); Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order); 5:30-10 p.m.(last order); Sunday and holidays: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order); 5:30-10 p.m. (last order)
Closed: Monday (Tuesday, if Monday is a national holiday)
Nearest stations: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)
How to get there: From Ebisu JR Station (East Exit), take the moving walkway to Yebisu Garden Place. At the end, turn left, cross the lights and walk down to the police box. Go straight across, keeping the Maison Franco-Japonais to your left. Da Pasquale is on the right after about 40 meters.
What works: Outstanding pizzas, excellent cucina, and that most arresting decor.
What doesn't: Unless they have the doors open onto the street, it can get pretty hot if you're sitting close to the oven.
Number of seats: 72
BGM: Inoffensive Italian pops
Price per head: Lunch courses (weekdays only) 1,300 yen and 2,500 yen; dinner a la carte; pizzas from 1,400 yen; cover charge 400 yen
Drinks: Beer from 700 yen; aperitivi from 650 yen; spumante 800 yen; wine from 750 yen/glass, 3,500 yen/bottle; grappa from 750 yen
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language: Japanese/Italian menu; some basic English spoken
Reservations: Reservations: Advisable at dinnertime



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