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Mario i Sentieri: A personal touch from super Mario

by Robbie Swinnerton

You’re booking a table for a nice night out, so which is it to be: punctilious precision in a bubble of privileged privacy; or something a bit warmer and jazzier, with a personal touch, plenty of atmosphere and a hint of glamour?

Each to their own, of course, but — all things being equal when it comes to the cooking — we know which we prefer. And we know where to find it. Make that a table for two at Mario i Sentieri.

It’s been more than a year since Mario Frittoli closed down Luxor, his ritzy, high-end ristorante in Shirokanedai and moved to his current premises in the better-trod back streets of Nishi-Azabu. It was a retrenchment, certainly, in tune with the economic climate; but it has also brought him back closer to his core clientele — those that appreciate the quality of his creative cucina.

I Sentieri — the name means a trail or mountain footpath — may be smaller and less celebrity glitzy, but it still has the buzz expected from Mario (thanks to his books and TV shows, everyone knows him on a first-name-only basis).

A curving flight of stairs leads up from the street to imposing metal doors. Inside, the color scheme is moody matte black and glowing red, with a couple of large contemporary artworks against the far wall and subtle lighting to illuminate the tablecloths. The feel is operatic, much like the background music — sensuous, passionate, serious but with a sense of fun.

There’s a small bar counter on one side of the room, where you can perch youself and nurse a drink while waiting for your table to free up or even settle in for a light snack. But the focus of the room is the long rectangular window to the brightly lit open kitchen, where Mario directs the proceedings, observing the dining room and saluting customers as they arrive.

His cooking is as good as ever, drawing on a wide palette of influences. He says the name, i Sentieri, reflects the new culinary trail he is blazing. After 20 years in Tokyo, he achieves a fine balance between the rich, sensuous recipes of his native Tuscany and the subtlety of flavor and presentation of his adopted homeland.

Y ou can’t go wrong with his “Special Course” (¥7,000 for five courses, with a couple of glasses of wine included). But if you’re out for a celebration or really want to see what he’s capable of, then look to the “Mario i Sentieri” course (¥8,500) — if only because, at present, it allows you to sample his fantastic pistachio gnocchi.

The finely ground Sicilian nuts are not only incorporated into the smooth texture of the gnocchi dough iself, but are also scattered into the thick Mascarpone- based sauce, along with pieces of tender tenaga ebi scampi and asparagus. With a further five courses (plus additional taste teasers), this all adds up to a serious session of deluxe dining.

The pasta, all freshly prepared in-house, is not to be missed. Our all-time favorite continues to be the exceptional pappardelle, which Mario pairs with a wonderful rich ragu. Whether made with duck or wild boar meat (as it is at the moment), the flavor is intensely powerful, having been slowly simmered down with red wine and seasoned with morsels of pancetta.

This, matched with a glass of fine red — perhaps Ornellaia Le Volte or one of the other Super Tuscans that grace the impressive wine list — is more than enough to draw us back time and again to dine at Mario’s, whatever part of town he’s in.

Although i Sentieri serves lunch on weekdays, the ambience loses a lot of its luster in the cold light of day. It’s after dark that things really come alive. And that will be especially so on Dec. 25, when Mario will be pulling out the stops for his special seven-course Christmas banquet (¥15,000). It promises to be quite an evening.