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Friday, Feb. 17, 2006

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Good local fare with uncommon flair


A trattoria is by definition a neighborhood institution, usually a small, family-run affair with modest prices and few pretensions, serving down-home cooking for a local clientele. Casa Vecchia fits that description perfectly.

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It is almost defiantly local. You will find it (but only if you have directions and/or a map) on a quiet back street lined with small stores, bars and no-frills diners close by the station at Yoyogi-Uehara, a district that still retains a distinctly neighborhood feel, even though it is barely outside the Yamanote Line.

When chef Hidenori Misaki set up shop here five years ago, he was clearly not aiming to lure people from all across the city. How could he, when his dining room was barely big enough to accommodate 12 customers at a time? But with Misaki and his two side-kicks in the kitchen, and his wife taking care of those six small tables, it wasn't long before he had built up a reputation in the immediate area.

There is a pleasing down-home feel to the place, with its plain walls, simple adornments and assorted chairs (some less comfortable than others, it should be warned). But it is not just the friendly welcome that draws the regular customers back nightly. It is the fine cucina.

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There's a definite down-home feel to the decor of Casa Vecchia in Yoyogi-Uehara, run by chef Hidenori Misaki (center) and staff. But the food is well above the standard for most neighborhood trattorias.

Misaki spent a total of seven years honing his skills in Italy, predominantly in Rome, but also traveling from the foothills of the Alps down to the furthest tip of Sicily. During that time, he developed a brilliant repertoire of variations on the theme of gnocchi, ravioli and the entire gamut of pasta.

Two pages of Casa Vecchia's leatherbound menu are devoted to them. It's a fantastic selection. To offer 13 dishes made with dried pasta is not so unusual. But to also fashion the same number of varieties of freshly rolled homemade pasta -- many of them regional specialties little known in other parts of Italy -- is truly remarkable.

Misaki's party piece is his handkerchief pasta -- fazzoletti in the vernacular -- in which delicate blue flowers are sandwiched in dough rolled out almost transparently fine. We chose instead to try the garganelli alla menta -- as the name indicates, flecks of dried mint are incorporated into the dough -- and his Tuscan-style pici pasta.

The garganelli, curls of dough formed into loose tubes using a special roller, barely whispered of the mint they contained. Matched with sugi di anatra, tender morsels of duck meat in a rich sauce, it was both delicate and delectable. The pici were far more robust ("like udon" was the description we were given, and it was not far from the truth) and were served with an excellent ragout of minced lamb meat. Hearty, satisfying, perfect for a cold winter evening.

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You can order your pasta as an a la carte selection -- in fact some of the locals drop in to Casa Vecchia especially for them. But they are also featured in the set meals, of which we sampled the 3,990 yen option.

This begins with a selection of antipasto, five or six tiny morsels, some freshly cooked, others served cold. Barely a mouthful each, they were arranged on the plate around a whole, lemon-marinated ama-ebi shrimp -- literally a tasting menu. Interestingly, our two plates were not identical, a move that naturally encourages you to share your food (or at least compare impressions) with your fellow diners.

Given the quality and range of his pastas, Misaki has wisely pared back on his main dishes. He offers a single fish of the day, plus four or five meat dishes. Our fish -- a fillet of kajika (bullhead or sculpin), an ugly denizen of the deep with sweet white flesh -- was pan fried with a crust of black olive tapenade.

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Chef Hidenori Misaki whips up his trademark cucina in the kitchen of Casa Vecchia.

Good as it was, it was barely big enough to qualify as an antipasto in most restaurants, even by Japanese standards. But no such criticism could be made of our meat dish -- ribs of Iberico pork simmered long and slow till the tender flesh eased off the bone.

Dessert and coffee rounded off the evening, supplemented with a snifter of good grappa from the liqueur selection. It was a fine meal, far more sophisticated than you'd expect in this obscure location.

What makes this place so enjoyable is that Misaki and his crew are not only enthusiastic about their food, they seem to get on so well together. Ask for wine, and instead of a list they bring a fistful of bottles to the table, based on the parameters (region, varietal, cost) that you have specified. Inquire about a specific dish and they will explain it in detail.

It's the small things like this that give a place its character. And if that's the definition of a trattoria, then Casa Vecchia qualifies hands down.

Peripheral yet essential

It's hard to find that authentic trattoria style in the high-overhead, fashion-conscious heart of Tokyo. Instead, it pays to cast your eyes out toward the periphery. Not surprisingly, two of the very best are run by native sons of Italy:

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Franco Canzoniere arrived here from Rome 15 years ago to open Il Boccalone in Ebisu, arguably the first authentic trattoria in the city, and later moved to La Bisboccia in Hiroo. But when he set up on his own in 1998, he left behind the inner-city spotlight in favor of the quieter climes of Nakano. With its faux beams, brickwork and open kitchen, Trattoria il Fornello has the air of a provincial Italian tavern. It is named for the oven that sits foursquare in Canzoniere's kitchen, from which he produces outstanding roast meats -- plus the tastiest lasagna in all of Tokyo.

Trattoria il Fornello, 4-7-2 Nakano, Nakano-ku; tel: (03) 3387-5210. Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (last order) and 5:30-10 p.m. (last order); Saturday, Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. (last order) and 5:30-10 p.m. (last order); closed occasional Wednesdays.

Angelo Cozzolino is another of Tokyo's veteran Italian chefs, and his first restaurants -- La Befana and, before that, Il Cantuccio, both in Shimo-Kitazawa -- were longtime favorites among the expatriate community here. A few years ago he set up Babbo Angelo ("Papa Angelo") out in Jiyugaoka, a cozy, second-floor eatery that finally gave us a valid reason to make the journey down the Toyoko Line. He and his crew prepare provender that is honest, straightforward and unfailingly delectable -- and he makes some very fine pizzas. Babbo Angelo is always busy and you'll never get in without a reservation. He could fill a restaurant twice the size. What better recommendation do you need?

Babbo Angelo, 1-25-12 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 5729-4339; open daily 12-2 p.m. (last order) and 6-10 p.m. (last order).

Casa Vecchia
1-34-10 Uehara, Shibuya-ku tel: (03) 3468-4280 www.casa-vecchia.jp/
Open: 12-2 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. (last order)
Closed: Monday
Nearest stations: Yoyogi-Uehara (Chiyoda and Odakyu lines)
How to get there: Leave the station by South Exit 1, turn left and walk to the end (near Exit 2). Turn right, walk up the hill, then take the first side street to the left (by a hair salon). Casa Vecchia is on the right after about 80 meters.
What works: Casual, friendly, affordable and cucina that's far better than you'd expect from a local trattoria.
What doesn't: In the evening, the lights are so low you can hardly read the menu.
Number of seats: 12 currently, but expanding to 20 next month
BGM: Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club de Paris
No smoking: From next month, there will be a small no-smoking area.
Price per head: Lunch from 1,050 yen; dinner from 3,990 yen; also a la carte; 10 percent service charge (evening only)
Drinks: Beer (Moretti) 630 yen; sangria 620 yen; wine from 750 yen/glass, from 4,000 yen/bottle; digestivi from 1,050 yen
Credit cards: Major cards accepted
Language: Japanese/Italian menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Highly recommended in the evening



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