Chic, cheap Italian eatery in Ogikubo

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012


The stylish Italian eatery, La Gallina, is situated on a slightly seamy sidestreet in Ogikubo next to a cos-play joint called AquaDoll. The touts trying to entice passersby to descend to the club, however, don’t seem to care. Such juxtapositions are common along the Chuo Line.

The customers at La Gallina don’t mind either. They’ve come for the simple, yet delicious food, expertly prepared and served with flair. They are also here for the very reasonable prices.

Chef Miyamoto worked in Puglia, Piemonte and Parma for four years and brought back to Japan considerable skills and an educated palate. His white bean soup (600 yen), a deeply satisfying Puglia favorite, is made with pureed cannellini beans moistened with chicken broth, blessed with a hint of sage, then drizzled with a swirl of olive oil and topped with a garlic-infused bruschetta and parsley. Fantastico.

Another excellent starter is his aji mariné with vegetable vinaigrette (1500 yen). This dish, easily shared by two, combines thick slices of tasty horse mackerel with a baby leaf salad and a fine dice of celery, daikon, carrot, whole capers, and slivers of green onion, all bathed a light tasty dressing. The careful, uniform dice of the veggies subtly shows the impressive knife skills and attention to detail that Chef Miyamoto brings to his cooking.

A variety of pasta dishes are offered, including a few daily menu choices chalked up on the black slate board. The gnocchi with taleggio cheese (1800 yen), again easily shared, were cloud-like pillows of potato pasta in a creamy, yet tangy sauce. Miyamoto finishes this dish with a line across the plate of chopped Italian parsley and another line of freshly ground black pepper. Unpretentious and delicioso.

The main dishes too are consistently fine. The grilled pork chop with rosemary (1800 yen) was a generous cut of pork nicely caramelized in spots but still juicy and faintly blushed with pink. The accompanying vegetables—broccoli, carrot, turnip, and sugar snap beans—were also nicely grilled and flavored with a rosemary-infused olive oil.

Another winning dish was the roast chicken with red wine sauce (1600 yen). The portion of thigh was perfectly crisped on the outside, yet tender on the inside. The red wine sauce was richly flavored with balsamic vinegar and a few grains of sea salt.

The separate dessert menu offers six or seven choices. The fruit madedonia with gelato (500 yen) is a refreshing melange of apple, orange, grapefruit, and kiwi (both yellow and green), crowned with a dollop of honey gelato. An unusual and tasty end to a meal is Miyamoto’s limoncello bruleé (500 yen).

The wine list is well-chosen with a broad selection of Italian whites and reds. Most bottles are priced at less than 5000 yen. One of the best is the young “Super-Tuscan” Dogajolo, an elegant, fruity red (4200 yen) or, among the whites, the Monteoro Vermentino Gallura 2009 from Sardinia (3900 yen).

The decor, at first, seems simple to the point of austerity. But after a glass or two of spumante (800 yen), the off-white plaster walls textured with trowel marks take on the potential of unfinished canvases. And the plain, dark wood tables frame and focus all attention to the food on the plate.

I’ve got only one quibble with La Gallina. I like the heroic tone and polished timbre of the Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli, just as much as the next guy, but hearing him belt out his best-selling song Con te partiro, four times during dinner would strain even the patience of a saint.

5-24-7 Ogikubo, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3392-9855. Lunch 11:30 am to 2 pm (L.O.) Dinner 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O.). Closed Mondays. For the complete review, and other of my reviews, please check out



Feeding the few in Rikuzentakata: Elio Orsara gives back

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Estimates vary on how many perished in the city of Rikuzentakata on March 11th when the tsunami obliterated that small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture. In the early afternoon, some 23,000 residents were going about their daily lives: working in small businesses, shopping on the shotengai, studying in school.

By late afternoon, the city had vanished, crushed by a 13-meter wall of black water as immeasurable tons of Pacific Ocean advanced with inexorable force more than ten kilometers inland. Some accounts mention 10,000 deaths. Other accounts guess maybe 5,000. No one really knows. So much was swept back out to sea.

This last weekend, June 5th, Elio Orsara and his crew of 15, kitchen staff and volunteers, drove up to what remains of Rikuzentakata to serve a five-course lunch to some of the residents.

Elio is the owner of a very successful Italian restaurant in Tokyo, Elio Locanda Italiana. Japan and the Japanese have been very good to him, he says, and he wants to give back. This was his fourth visit to the town.

We gathered outside Elio’s Locanda at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and waited on the street until others from the “Italians For Tohoku” organization showed up.

“I’m proud of how fast the Italians got together to help the people of Tohoku,” said Elio. Though within that group, Elio doesn’t want to promote himself or his restaurant with his charity, so he’s created his own loosely knit group, Calabresi nel Mondo. 

We, in Elio’s crew, will be going to Hirota Elementary School, he explained, while the other group of Italians in the caravan will serve lunch at a nearby community shelter.

A television crew shows up from a website. They start filming. Elio has no idea who the film crew was or why they were there.

When everyone finally arrives, he claps his hands together to gather us around. “OK,” he says, “we are going to Rikuzentakata to feed the people. We are not tourists. Don’t take photos like a tourist. These people have their pride and don’t take photos. We go there to work.”

At about 12:15am we set off. After a ramen stop at 4:00 a.m., we arrive around 7 a.m. at the location of the Rikuzentakata train station. Now completely gone. Nothing remains.

“When I came here the first time in March,” says Elio, “there was so much more debris. They’ve cleaned up two thirds of it already.”

Still, immense piles of steel, or wood, or rows of destroyed cars, trucks, and vans, or piles of dead trees or brown shrubbery stretch to the faraway hills.

In the distance, we see excavators and backhoes working with debris. At one spot near the cratered ruins of the town’s sports stadium, a vast expanse of seawater stretched to the horizon. “That is not the sea,” says Elio as we drive slowly past. “That is seawater that remains. The sea is a kilometer or two beyond.”

Since this was the crew’s fourth trip, the setting up of the portable kitchen and buffet goes amazingly fast. Three large tents are unpacked, unfolded, and snapped into shape in about five minutes.

Meanwhile in those few minutes, the truck is unloaded, tables set up and duct taped together, gas burners connected to portable gas containers, 30-liter red and blue plastic water containers unloaded.

Vacuum-packed bags of bolognese sauce, caponata, roasted potatoes, and chicken with rosemary are heated in cauldrons. Two large plastic boxes of al dente pasta are set out ready to add to the sauce.

Hours and hours of preparation had already taken place earlier that evening—making the minestrone, the meat sauce, the side dishes and main dishes, and kilograms and kilograms of al dente penne noodles.

Crisp white linen table clothes are then taped to the tables, as Elio checks the drape of each cloth so it hangs evenly. Fresh fruit is cut into wedges: oranges, watermelon, musk melon, red grapes snipped into small handfuls, then artfully arranged on plastic platters.

Large boxes of artisanal bread—large life-preserver shaped loaves, square loaves, focaccia and baguettes—all baked at Elio’s catering shop, are sliced and arranged in woven baskets under Elio’s watchful eyes.

Elio tastes the minestrone and the bubbling bolognese sauce, “Good, but add a little salt,” he says. “The sauce is still a little thin, add some Parmigiano cheese.”

Paper bowls and plates, plastic spoons and forks are sorted and placed for an easy flow along the buffet tables. Plastic bags are taped to the school building wall and labeled: burnable trash, plastic, raw garbage.

Under a separate tent, tens of boxes of donated items: shoes, blankets, blouses, scarves, sunglasses, space heaters, toys, a small red bicycle, umbrellas, jumpers, are set out. Elio had sent out a message via his Facebook site to all his customers asking them to donate whatever they could. He had it all boxed up and loaded into his truck.

Just before 11 a.m. Elio claps his hands together, “Come here, everybody! Okay, at 11 a.m. we start serving. Get ready.”

The five-course buffet line is set out beautifully: minestrone, penne with bolognese sauce, caponata, potatoes with herbs, and roast chicken with rosemary. Trays of colorful cut fresh fruit, and baskets of bread. And at the very end, boxes of Chupa Chups lollipops.

Then Elio bellows, “Irashaimase! Welcome! Lunch is served!” The oba-sans and oji-sans who had been sifting through the boxes of clothes start to move toward the cups of minestrone. The line lengthens.

I start scooping out a ladleful of penne onto each paper plate—in the amount Elio had decided for he needs to make the food last.

Elio starts smoozing with the oba-sans. Some wear plastic slippers, thick socks, cotton training wear. Some with aprons, wind breakers, and cotton hats. Some have faces as wrinkled as prunes, with thick sturdy fingers and bright undefeated eyes. I see pairs of hands after pairs of hands—moving past, holding plates and sometimes trying to balance the cup of soup.

Some of the donation boxes of shoes, or blouses are empty and stacked nearby. Someone realizes that carrying the abundance of food would be easier with a tray. A cardboard flap is torn off the box and used as a makeshift tray. Now plates and bowls enough for two or three are easier to carry. Suddenly, everyone has a torn piece of cardboard for a tray. The line of hungry people shuffle slowly past my pasta tray. It’s empty. Again and again, it’s empty. Each time, the cook behind me quickly replaces the empty tub of pasta with a full one.

Once people have settled down to eat on the concrete school steps, or makeshift tables under a tent set up by the elementary school, someone brings their torn cardboard “trays” back to the head of the line so that the next person can use one.

Some people come back for seconds or thirds. Elio, or other members of his crew, sometimes help out carrying the torn cardboard trays of food.

At noon, basketball practice ends and young students in blue sports uniforms start to line up too for lunch. Elio comes over to one woman who must be in her seventies. He says in Italian-accented Japanese, “Hello, my new girlfriend! How are you? Let me carry your food.” For ninety minutes we dish out food. One by one, the courses run out. At 12:30 p.m., all that is left is penne with bolognese sauce and bread. New people show up for lunch. We dish out hearty portions of the pasta into paper bowls topped with spoonfuls of grated parmigiano cheese.

The focaccia sandwiches which had been prepared for our lunches are set out for the Rikuzentakata citizens. Soon those sandwiches are gone as well.

Throughout the whole meal no one pushes. No one shoves. No one tries to take more than they think they can eat.

At 1 p.m., Elio claps his hands together again. “Ok! Let’s shut this down and pack it up!”

Within ten minutes, everything is packed up and loaded into the truck which is only half full now that the food and donated goods are gone. Large trays of the remaining pasta are left for the residents. All the donated boxes of clothing and toys are left too.

One boy plays with a toy dinosaur and a boxed race car set which is too big for him to carry. One woman looks at a silk scarve perhaps a Celine. “I can’t use that,” she says with a laugh. A few minutes later, I see another woman with a handful of those scarves and other goods stuffed into a plastic sack.

The cooks pour out the remaining water onto the red tiles of the landing and scrub them down, just as they do at the end of the day in Elio’s kitchen. The garbage bags are collected.

Before we get into the cars for the 7-hour drive back home, Elio gathers us all together again. Some residents ask for photos to be taken with Elio. Hand shakes. Then Elio asks us to form a circle for the Japanese tradition of “ippon jimei” which is done at the conclusion of a communal job well done.

“We served about 300 people,” he says. “Thank you for all your efforts.”

Elio’s right-hand man, Mikata-san yells out  the cue of “Yo!” Then we all try to clap our hands together in one loud clap. We mess up. Our timing is off. “Let’s do it again,” says Elio. This time it’s perfect.

Elio had originally planned to go to Hong Kong this weekend, but when he heard he could go to an elementary school this time, he cancelled his trip.

“I do this for the kids,” he says. “I like to see their smiles.”

The Rikuzentakata elementary school children have eaten and are sitting together on the red-tiled steps of the landing near the classrooms singing songs along with an oba-san strumming on a ukelele. The kids are laughing and clapping with white Chupa Chups sticks poking out from their smiles.



Tokio Plage Lunatique

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Tokio Plage tree shot

Summer is over. And Japan’s loveliest season has arrived wearing her many colored robe. But the summer season lingers on at any outside table of Tokio Plage Lunatique riverside in Futagotamagawa. From the funky patio, with its mismatched chairs and rattan sofa, you can enjoy a chilled glass of wine or a cold beer under the  spreading branches of a towering linden tree, listening the rustle of the bamboo grove as the wide Tama river flows silently on in front of you.Tokio Plage outside

Inside are ruby red walls, linen laid tables, and a casual eclectic decor that Amélie of Paris would appreciate. The dinner menu offers pastas, and other Italian-accented entrees.

Toki Plage curryMy favorite lunch is the vegetable curry—spicy and filling with chunks of pumpkin, eggplant, tomato, green pepper, and a deep- fried egg to top it off. With its green salad and glass of iced tea, the ¥1,500 price is a bargain.

After lunch, spend some time browsing in the next door shop selling kitchenware, dining, and other living accessories from popular French designer, Genevieve Lethu, the only such shop in Japan. Dogs are welcome in both establishments.Tokio Plage Sparky

Tokio Plage is open everyday from 11:45 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The best way to arrive is to ride your bicycle down the lovely paved paths along either the Sengawa river, or the Nogawa river, until you reach the Tama river at Futagotamagawa. You could also walk, less than ten minutes, from Futagotamagawa station.

1-1-4 Tamagawa, Setagaya Ward. Tel: 03-3708-1118.

Pasta alla Elaine

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009


As to which pasta sauce reigns supreme in our house, it’s a toss up between “red sauce” and “pepperoncini.” I’ll save the pepperoncini recipe for another day.

The “red sauce” is my version of the tomato-based pasta dish my mother made so often when I was growing up. Unfortunately, we’ve got no Italian blood in our family, but I’ve eaten so much pasta over the years, I consider myself an honorary Italian.

tomatoesMy cupboard is always stocked with packets of dried porcini, cans of whole Italian tomatoes, and spaghettini. So all I need to do for a quick, easy, and delicious meal is bicycle over to my local supermarket to pick up a couple of ripe avocados, a packet of shiitake mushrooms, some ground beef, and salad greens. I’ve been making this pasta sauce for so many years, I do it on automatic pilot while listening to National Public Radio and sipping a tumbler of red wine.

Basically, you’re making a marinara sauce. For marinara, tomatoes are the most important ingredient. Any brand of whole Italian plum tomatoes will do. I’ve made this sauce many times with the cheapest canned tomatoes I could find, but it’s worth seeking out San Marzano tomatoes. They are richer tasting and meatier than any other type.

First, let’s do the prep work. Get yourself a glass of red wine. All right? Let’s go.

3 cans (14 oz. each) San Marzano tomatoes

• two bay leaves (preferably Turkish, the most flavorful)

• one package dried porcini (30 grams)

• 6 to 8 fresh shiitake mushrooms (caps only: sliced or roughly chopped)

• one medium onion (finely diced)

• 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• 200 grams ground beef or pork

• 4-5 large cloves of garlic (whole and peeled)

• 1 tsp.salt (preferably sea salt)

• 1 tsp. herbes de provence

500 grams spaghetti or spaghettini

• freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the Starter: two ripe avocados, one lemon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar

In a small bowl, add a half cup of luke-warm water to the dried porcini to cover. Let them soak and soften for 20-30 minutes. The water will become a deeply perfumed, dark brown broth.

Dice the onion. Peel 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic. The easiest way to do this is to smash the cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife. The papery skin will come right off. Open the three cans of tomatoes. Remove the stems from the shiitake and slice the caps.

Add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive to a large saucepan. My family loves garlic, but I don’t want it to dominate the sauce, so I saute the garlic cloves on medium-low heat until they’re colored a pale gold. Be careful to turn the garlic frequently so that it doesn’t burn. When nicely colored, remove the garlic to a paper towel.garlic 1

At this point one of my sons will come over and snag a crisp clove or two. They’re delicious. Add the chopped onion, turn up the heat to medium and saute the onions until they’re translucent: maybe five minutes.

tomato masherNow add the San Marzano tomatoes. I use a potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes to an even consistency in the sauce pan. Toss in a bay leaf or two and a teaspoon of sea salt. Most marinara recipes call for oregano, but I’m partial to herbes de provence and use a teaspoon of that fragrant melange instead.

Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms. Squeeze the reconstituted porcini in your fist to drain them, reserving the broth. Chop the wrung out porcini roughly. Add them to the sauce. Pour the porcini broth, but not the grit at the bottom of the bowl, into the sauce. Stir.

In a separate fry pan, brown the ground beef, then add it to the sauce. Stir and let the sauce simmer and thicken uncovered on low heat for at least 45 minutes.ground beef

The great thing about this sauce is that it’s so versatile. You can add other types of mushrooms. Use ground pork or chicken instead of beef, or leave out the meat entirely. I’ve got no name for this sauce, but I’m sure my mother would approve of naming it after her: “Pasta alla Elaine.”

A couple of points to note when cooking the pasta: Make sure the water is properly salted. And don’t rely on the timing written on the package. Set your timer a minute or two earlier than the recommended timing and keep tasting the pasta until is done al dente. Drain then immediately toss the pasta with a cup or two of the sauce.  Serve with some extra sauce on top and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

My son, Christopher, who always votes for “red sauce” says if you add more cheese, it’s double the goodness.

avocado starterThe starter is easy too. Halve an avocado, remove the stone, peel and slice the avocado. Arrange the slices on a plate. Mix one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with two tablespoons of olive oil. Drizzle the lemony oil over the sliced avocado, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finito.

Serve these dishes with some crusty bread and a green salad and Buono Appetito!

I never get to eat right away, though, because at this point my dog starts pestering me until I dust her kibble with freshly grated cheese.

Trattoria I’bischero

Friday, February 27th, 2009


What draws the nightly crowd to far-flung Kiba and Trattoria I’bischero? Perhaps it’s the tagliatelle with duck meat sauce or spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil. Maybe it’s the gorgonzola and rucola risotto or even the grilled steak di manzo. What draws me, though, to this unlikely location at the end of a lonely residential street, are the white beans with Sardinian bottarga. The pot at the end of a Tuscan rainbow ought to be filled with those savory beans.

Tomoya Hayakawa, the young, self-confident chef and owner of I’bischero was once a Tokyo salaryman. One day he got restless, quit, went to Italy to knock around, and was lucky enough to land a job at the small, family-run Trattoria Pandemonio in Firenze. Working there four years, he ate every meal with the family and staff, and educated his tongue to the tastes of Tuscany.

Hayakawa champions a slow food approach to dining, and his carefully crafted menu includes many of the same dishes as Pandemonio—dishes with simple tastes, a little sophisticated, but with no extra arrangement or garnishes. Thus, his tagliata di manzo: tender Japanese sirloin seared, then quickly grilled, sliced, and laid on a bed of fresh rucola. Nothing added but a bit of olive oil and sea salt. Perfetto.tagliata-di-manzo

The menu features some ten to fifteen choices each for antipasti, pasta and risottos, and main dishes. After several meals there, I’ve eaten through much of the menu and have discovered no duds. Even if you normally eschew tripe, the trippa alla fiorentina might convert you to that humble, delectable fare. With his risottos, Hayakawa bucks tradition using long-grained jasmine rice instead of Italian or Japanese rice, and the results are delicious. In season, the oyster risotto should not be missed.

white-beans Hayakawa’s favorite olive oil, Fattoria Regli Ulivi, can’t be found in Japan, so he imports it. This fine oil reveals its character with those heavenly white beans. Cooked to perfection, each bean has a luscious creamy texture, yet still remains firm. Their earthy taste is accented by hints of sage, rosemary, onions, and garlic, which meld with the fruity notes of the olive oil. Generous shavings of bottarga (preserved grey mullet roe) then add a lively, salty counterpoint to the dish.

I’bischero is airy, simply laid out, with warm woody tones. In the main dining room, rustic beams run along the ceiling and large windows allow plenty of natural light. Off to one side is an alcove with a few tables lit by small candles for the more romantically minded.

Prices are very reasonable at I’bishero, though the wine list, which covers all regions of Italy, could benefit from a few more inexpensive bottles. The house wine, though, a sturdy Tuscan Antinori Santa Cristina, priced at 2500 yen, is more than adequate. One small quibble: when ordering the house wine, you won’t get proper-sized wine glasses unless you ask for them.

The days when Italian food was the most popular “foreign” food in Tokyo are long gone. Hayakawa choose his out-of-the-way location with that in mind—only those people, he says, who care enough about good Italian food will come to Kiba to find him.

Trattoria I’bischero: 5-11-2 Toyo, Luminas Kiba Koen 2F, Koto Ward. 03.5635.5077. Well worth the subway ride to Kiba.