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Saturday, June 13, 2009

A passion for food, cars and aikido


By WILSON WHYTE
Special to The Japan Times

You probably don't know where Ushigome is. Like many areas within Tokyo's Yamanote Line, it is somewhat anonymous — the kind of place where you expect to find nothing of interest and where the local people, as if oblivious to the size of the metropolis around them, shop in tiny old stores. It's the kind of place that seems to relish its anonymity.

News photo
Food for life: Italian Carmine Cozzolino, a restaurateur in Japan for over 25 years and the owner of six restaurants in Tokyo, first came to Japan in 1978 with ambitions of becoming an aikido teacher. WILSON WHYTE PHOTO

It's not the sort of place where you expect to find a decent place to eat either. An old ramen shop perhaps, maybe a yakiniku joint. Almost certainly, you would not expect to find a decent Italian eatery in this part of Shinjuku Ward. There are, in fact, two eateries, both created by their Italian owner, Carmine Cozzolino.

One is named Carmine, a smart, intimate but relaxing Italian restaurant. The other is La Volpaia, a small, casual (you order at the counter), bright slice of Italy that seduces you with its friendliness, pasta, pizza and wine.

Cozzolino, 53, is not just another Italian with a couple of restaurants. He has been in the restaurant business in Japan for over a quarter of a century. He currently owns six restaurants in Tokyo (down from a high of eight) as well as a palatial estate (including vineyard and olive grove) in Italy. But his success in Japan was built on a singular desire: to be Bruce Lee.

He and Lee are about the same height, but Cozzolino has obviously eaten a lot more cheese-laden pasta than the '70s kung-fu star. And he smiles a lot more. Cozzolino is obviously a happy man.

He has a very successful business, a large and close immediate family (Japanese wife and two handsome sons) and a large and close extended family in Italy. For seven years, he commuted between Italy and Japan (two weeks here, two weeks there) while his sons went to school in Italy, but now he spends more time here. But if his grandmother decides to cook his favorite food, he's likely to hop on a plane for a family lunch in Florence, the city to which his family moved when he was 15 after leaving Calabria at the southern end of the Italian "boot."

He suspects he's not (and never was) going to be the new Bruce Lee, but it was his interest in martial arts that brought him to Japan.

"In Florence at the beginning of the '70s there was a big martial arts boom led by Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, and I saw many movies of that kind," Cozzolino explained. "I got the dream of coming to Asia and becoming like Bruce Lee." He laughs in a self-deprecating sort of way. He started with judo, but it was when he discovered aikido that he realized what martial art he wanted to practice.

So taken was he with the art that he ventured to Japan in 1978 in order to become an aikido sensei.

But in order to pay the bills in Tokyo, he reverted to working as a chef.

News photo
Early on in Japan, Cozzolino became a personality and appeared frequently in magazines and on TV. Here he appears in younger years on a poster for a restaurant.

"Cooking was not my life dream," he admits. "It was just a job for living and at that time it wasn't a trendy job. When people in Italy asked me what I was doing, I told them I was a student. But it became trendy in the '80s.

"Food changed and became more modern and many chefs around the world became celebrities. And I grew to understand how important Italian food was outside Italy. Before that, I didn't know I had a skill that could earn me money. Initially, I was working in a coffee shop for ¥600 an hour and doing aikido."

But through a friend, he got work in a restaurant and started to enjoy it. One of his customers then offered him a position in a different restaurant with a good salary and plenty of time off to practice aikido. Even better, his boss was media-savvy and suddenly Cozzolino found himself featured in magazines and on TV.

"I became a personality and I liked that," he admits. But despite his popularity in the media, Italian food took second place to French food in the minds of the Japanese, including his employer.

"I had some problems with the owner," Cozzolino recalls. "These people had never been to Italy and had no idea about Italian food. They always wanted Italian food that looked like French food."

Cozzolino wanted out. More than that, he wanted to set up his own business.

"I felt that if I had the freedom to express myself in cooking, service and wine, I could do it," he states. He found an old house between Kagurazaka and Ichigaya and quickly turned it into his own restaurant — Carmine.

It was a big success and Cozzolino found himself all over the media again. He was even credited with starting the "Itameshi" boom that saw Italian food and culture rise to a new level in Japan. He expanded his empire to eight restaurants and reaped the benefits of his very successful business — a Ferrari 328 GTS being one of them.

Cozzolino is very much an ambassador for both Italy and Italian food. He still gets irritated by misrepresentations of both (such as the Japanese putting "pasta" on their menus when they only mean spaghetti), but he's in a position where he can explain and educate. La Volpaia, which attracts families and children on the weekend, is close to his philosophy on dining.

"For Italians, eating means you never eat alone," he states. "Italians want company when they eat — good friends, family, brothers, sisters. Every day, Italian families eat together. On the weekend, brothers and sisters meet and go to their parents' house. When I go back to Italy, it's a party. My mother is young (70) and my 92-year-old grandmother still makes handmade pasta." And it won't be spaghetti.

Cozzolino explains that at family gatherings they eat short pasta that takes longer to cook and is easier to share. It's social eating. He also points out that pizza is not something that's cooked at home, but is eaten at a pizzeria, which is similar in status to an izakaya in Japan.

Cozzolino, who was a vegetarian when he arrived in Japan, has gradually become used to Japanese food (and is no longer a veggie), but, he remembers, "When I tasted tofu for the first time, I thought, this is not for human beings." He admits to loving sushi, but for him Italian food is his life. "It's the food that makes me happy," he declares.

Away from food, his other passion is auto-racing. In addition to loving cars himself, his son, Kei, is a top driver in Formula 3 in Japan.

"The best time for me is when I'm watching my son race," he says with obvious pride. "Every two or three weeks I must go and watch him race. It's my hobby and my son's profession, and I have to be on the track all weekend. I like it so much; it's so exciting. My dream is that he will become a Formula 1 driver." His other son (known as "LD") is also living out his father's dream in a different way — he's become a chef in Italy.

"He decided that by himself," Cozzolino says. "I never said anything. But I was very happy when he told me he was working in a restaurant. And also I'm happy because maybe one day he can take over my restaurants here — I hope."

But Cozzolino hasn't forgotten his dreams of Bruce Lee and he still hopes eventually to become an aikido instructor.

"I studied very hard," he recalls. "That was my reason for being here. I lived in a 6-mat room with no shower and went to the sento every day. I trained hard and am now a 5th dan."

When he retires, he says he wants to go back to Florence and open a dojo. "Maybe I won't become Bruce Lee, but it's still my dream to teach aikido in Italy."

Check out www.carmine.jp for everything on Carmine Cozzolino and his world.


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