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Friday, Oct. 5, 2007
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Channeling the flavors of Sicily
What distinguishes a trattoria from a full-blown, self-styled ristorante? It's not the decor, the size of the dining room or the proximity of your neighbors' table. Nor is it necessarily the quality of the cooking. We always know we're in trattoria territory when the staff seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the customers. And that's the case at Don Ciccio.
There's been a buzz about this place from the moment it opened late last year. Unlike so many restaurants that take time to settle in, Don Ciccio (pronounced "Chitcho") hit the ground running. And despite the less than obvious location on a narrow street on the fringe of Shibuya that curves like an arc along the edge of Aoyama Gakuin University, there's rarely a free seat in the house.
You understand why as soon as you arrive. The welcome is warm, the waiters work like a team and understand the meals they serve. More importantly, the kitchen produces food of great assurance. This kind of chemistry doesn't come together overnight.
It all makes sense when you find out that Don Ciccio is the reincarnation of Da Tommasino, an excellent little trattoria that grew too popular for its limited premises in Kita-Aoyama. Despite the change of name and address (and a hiatus of half a year), owner-chef Tsutomu Ishikawa — known to all his Italian friends and colleagues as Tommaso — managed to keep most of his crew together, along with his customer base. And, as before, his menu retains its single-minded focus on the cooking of Sicily.
Order up a few antipasti and you immediately know he understands the hearty nature of this Mediterranean cooking. The carpaccio di pesce spada affumata features slices of lightly smoked swordfish scattered with crisp rocket leaf, fennel (like celery but without the penetrating flavor) and generous chunks of juicy orange. It is as delectable as it looks. The caponata plate holds two generous portions of vinegared vegetables, one based on zucchini and red pepper, the other made from eggplant and fennel bulb, cooked down in a tomato sauce that is rich but tart. And the frittata di pesce (batter-fried small fish) would be quite substantial enough to serve as a main dish in more effete establishments.
The menu, written in Italian as well as Japanese, would be much easier to decipher in either language if they did not try to cram it onto two pages. Moreover, there are several specials of the day to add to the 10 or so starters listed (each around ¥1,800), the same number of pasta dishes (also from ¥1,800), plus a score of primi main dishes (¥2,500 and up).
On our most recent visit, we especially enjoyed the tacozette al pesto di rucola, postage-stamp-size squares of pasta served with a creamy sauce flecked with plenty of finely chopped arugula greens. If you want something heartier than this, try Ishikawa's version of the Sicilian classic casarecce con sarde. The firm, chunky pasta (resembling curled up pappardelle) is cooked with a dry, flaky coating of sardine meat, ground pine nuts, sultana grapes and fennel bulb (again) in a tomato base — easily enough to share between two.
As you might expect, there are plenty of seafood options among the main dishes and you can choose your "catch of the day" grilled, oven-baked, steamed or lightly wine-simmered as aqua pazza. But Sicily has as many shepherds as fishermen, and Ishikawa reflects this with a fine range of meat dishes. The gran carne misti (¥2,800) is a mixed plate of grilled meats, including pork and beef tongue. We can give an unequivocal thumbs up to the grilled pork (premium Platinum pork from Iwate), as well as to the side dish of perfectly cooked roast Inca potatoes. All are of sufficient volume to be shared between two — and are best done so if, like us, you cannot restrain yourself from ordering at least three appetizers.
This is full-flavored, no-nonsense cooking that goes straight to the point, with no attempt at over-finessing. There is a good, compact list of Sicilian wines to go with it, including several by the glass. As well as the better-known Planeta, there are also a few bottles from Donnafugata, including the wonderful Chiaranada, a blend of Chardonnay with the Sicilian Inzolia grape.
Desserts are not Ishikawa's strongest suit — although this may be a calculated move to discourage those female dilettantes who only pick at their main courses. Indeed, most of Don Ciccio's customers know their way around Italian cuisine and are just as inclined to close their meal with grappa or dessert wine — perhaps a Moscato or a Passito from the small volcanic island of Pantelleria (the molten-gold Ben Rye is well worth a minisplurge).
With its dark-wood beams across the ceiling, ocher walls and rustic taberna look, this is a comfortable space in which to settle with a postprandial glass or two. In summer — and until the evenings start to get overly chilly — there is a small terrace area sufficiently enclosed by greenery so that the traffic is not too obvious.
Commendably, the entire dining room, including the terrace, is no-smoking — witness the "Vietato Fumare" signs. As is mandatory in Italy these days, anyone who wants to light up has to step out onto the sidewalk. It's just another indication of how close to authentic Ishikawa and his busy crew try to make the Don Ciccio experience.