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Friday, July 4, 2008


A slice of Italy in Shirokanedai

There's nothing remotely antique about Antica Vineria Giuliano. It's barely been open a month; you can still smell the paint as you make your way down the stairs. And yet this cozy basement wine bar already exudes the kind of self-assurance that can take other places years to accrue.

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Saucy: Homemade salsicce sausages are one of the house specialties, either grilled or simmered with cannellini beans. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

That is not really so surprising: It's run by the same people as the excellent Trattoria della Lanterna Magica in the residential streets just north of JR Meguro Station. Giuliano, too, is a local joint, tucked a block away from the main drag in Shirokanedai, though such is the cult popularity of the parent operation that word is already spreading fast beyond the immediate neighborhood.

Unlike Lanterna Magica, which is a proper sit-down restaurant, Giuliano feels considerably more casual. With its low ceiling, graceful whitewashed arches and mezzanine storeroom, it nicely conjures up the image of a converted Tuscan wine cellar.

The owners definitely have their priorities straight. Most of the room is taken up by the open kitchen, which is flanked on two sides by a counter spacious enough for a dozen bar stools without feeling cramped. This is where the action is, and the tables that are squeezed in at the other end of the room feel a bit like an afterthought.

If you spotted the wording on the awning as you entered, you will know exactly what to expect: "Vini, Salumeria, Fritti." Loosely translated, that's "wine, cold cuts and deep-fried dishes." Modestly, they omit to mention that they also produce a good range of simple hearty trattoria cooking, too. Before you start ordering, manager Fumikatsu Matsushita encourages you to examine the contents of his capacious deli display case, in which an appetizing selection of prepared antipasti are arrayed alongside hams, cheeses and fresh vegetables.

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The real deli deal: Just off Platinum Avenue in Shirokanedai, Antica Vineria Giuliano is a wine bar that specializes in Italian salami sausages and cold cuts.

The wine we chose to start the evening with was a prosecco, which we drank with a mixed platter of charcuterie. This we followed in quick succession with an order of baccala manteca, the salt cod blended to a creamy paste and doled out with a generous portion of steaming-hot polenta; and a serving of insalata di polipi, baby octopus simply cooked till tender in a light, aromatic bouillon.

Though tempted by the fritti misti (mixed deep-fried seafood and vegetables), we could not pass up the chance of baby zucchini with blossoms still attached. Their crisp, golden casings of batter cracked open to reveal oozing mozzarella cheese stuffed into the delicate flowers.

Guiliano is not one of those specialist wine bars that boast hefty cellars of rare and pricey vintages. The list is succinct and for the most part very affordable. There are at least a dozen wines by the glass and Matsushita is ready to open further bottles on request, to match whatever you are eating.

In our case, that was a plate of the special homemade salsicce sausages, which are offered in two styles: slowly grilled (over gas, not charcoal); or browned then simmered with plenty of fagioli, white cannellini beans in tomato sauce. Both are simple, classic preparations, highlighting to great effect the depth of flavor in the sausages.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the menu is what isn't there. There is no pasta (or risotto) listed at all. But those craving their carbo fix should not panic — they keep a large pan of water on the go at all times and are quite prepared to rustle up a simple spaghetti or penne at short notice.

Matsushita lived and worked in kitchens around Italy for half a dozen years, and his crew are equally Italophile. They shout their orders out across the kitchen in cheerful Italian. They have also embraced the new Italian ethic by posting signs warning Viatato fumare (No smoking).

More than anything, it is Guiliano's easygoing atmosphere that gives the wine bar its air of authenticity. Finding good cucina with wine to match is not so hard in this city. What impressed us was the level of enthusiasm, the warm welcome and sense of unhurried attention to detail that makes Guiliano feel like a real local.

Summer in Nakameguro, sitting by the river, dining al fresco

Dall'orto tries hard to press all the trendy buttons. It's new and bright and modern; the food is not just Italian, it's "natural trattoria" Italian; the chicken is premium jidori (free- range) — though they don't specify from where; the salad veggies are organic; so is one of the house wines.

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Taking it to the patio: The wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven at Dall'orto

Best of all, it has installed a classic Neapolitan pizza oven (tiled and wood-fired of course) and have hired a young pizzaiolo who produces perfect mottled golden-brown pies, including exotic varieties such as white asparagus from Hokkaido and pancetta (with balsamico dressing) or "two-color pepper" and ricotta cheese.

So far so good, but otherwise there's little on the menu that sets it apart from scores of other smart new diners around the city that purvey generic but well-intentioned Italian. It's certainly not the best pizzeria in Tokyo. It's not even the best in Nakameguro (look up Seirinkan in the Food File archives). But where Dall'orto scores big is with its setting, right on the leafy banks of the Meguro River.

There are only four tables on the open patio, and on balmy summer evenings (or weekend lunchtimes), there will be plenty of competition for them. Dall'orto has already become a favored port of call on the local dog-walking route, so be prepared for canine company too. A reservation will be needed.

Dall'orto, 1-23-3 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; Open 5 p.m.-3 a.m. (Sat. noon-4 p.m.; 5 p.m.-3 a.m.; Sun. noon-11 p.m.); (03) 6801-7693; www.dallorto.jp Gentrification is the name of the game in Nakameguro, but it hasn't always been chic and sleek. To get a taste of what the old-style, artsy neighborhood was like a few years back, you just have to wander a couple of blocks further down the river to the delightfully funky Omamori Pasta Kitchen.

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Last orders: Omamori Pasta Kitchen in Nakameguro will close soon.

It's a rambling, ramshackle old wooden building built half a century ago, with a flaking facade and retro interior. On the ground floor it serves a selection of spaghettis and wholesome home cooking. The upstairs cafe has a very pleasant deck. And hidden away at the back is a small bakery producing righteous breads and Japanese-style pastries.

It's simple and friendly, a great place just to chill. But sadly, its days are numbered. By August, the wreckers will be moving in to redevelop this prime piece of riverside real estate. We won't mourn the cooking (it's the opposite of gourmet) but we will miss the quirky one-of-a-kind setting — and the life-size model cow out front.

Omamori Pasta Kitchen & Cafe. 1-23-3 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.); (03) 3792-5223

Antica Vineria Giuliano

Location: THE 2000 B1, 5-17-10 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku
(03) 5449-6777

Open: 6 p.m.-midnight (last order); closed Sunday

Nearest station: Shirokanedai (Nanboku and Mita lines)

How to get there: From Shirokanedai Station (Exit 1), walk to the intersection, turn right down Gaien-Nishi-dori (aka Platinum Avenue) and take the second side street to the left (just before the Eneos gas station). At the end, turn right and you will see the entrance to Guiliano on the right.

What works: Casual setting, quality food, reasonable prices and a proper neighborhood feel

Number of seats: 28 (including 12 at the counter)

Smoking: Not permitted

Price per head: Figure around ¥3,000 (plus drinks); cover charge ¥300

Drinks: Beer from ¥500; wine from ¥600/glass; ¥3,600/bottle; grappa from ¥800

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Italian/Japanese/English menus; Italian/English spoken

Reservations: Advisable

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