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Pizzeria e Trattoria da Isa: Proper pizza and pasta — and yes, it’s in Tokyo

by Robbie Swinnerton

“You can’t get proper Italian food in Japan.” “It’s all too pretty-pretty and refined.” “There’s no soul in it.” These are the plaints of people pining for the taste of home. People who have never been to Pizzeria e Trattoria da Isa.

Make your way along the Naka-Meguro stretch of Yamate-dori on a balmy early-autumn evening and there’s no way you can miss the place: There are tables spreading four-deep across the sidewalk. As often as not there will also be a dozen people or more in line outside, waiting for them to free up.

Even before you spot the flicker of the flames inside the oven and the warm aromas of wood smoke and baking pizza crust greet your nostrils, you will hear the buzz and chatter, the clinking of wine glasses, the sound of people enjoying their meals. Those tables with their pink-and-white checked plastic cloths may be basic and cramped, but dinner here (and lunch too) feels fun.

Da Isa is the creation and life-work of Hisanori Yamamoto. He’s the young pizzaiolo you see at the helm of the massive wood-fired oven, shoveling in the pale raw pizzas with his long flat paddle, and then just a minute or so later pulling them out golden brown and bubbling hot.

When he opened da Isa in February last year, most of the media interest focused on the fact that for three years running he was a winner at the World Pizza Cup competition held in Naples, Italy. But it’s not the trophies and certificates on the walls that keeps us coming back — nor even that Yamamoto has re-created the look and feel of a no-frills Neapolitan backstreet trattoria. It’s that he really does turn out pizzas as good as you’d find back in the old country.

He offers around 40 different kinds on his menu, ranging in price from ¥1,500 to almost twice that much, depending on the ingredients. But don’t ask for exotic flavors or toppings such as pineapple or seaweed. Almost all of his pizzas are variations on the classic Marinara or Margherita styles, though cheese-lovers will be thrilled to find a Quattro Formaggi (¥2,350), featuring mozzarella, Gorgonzola, taleggio and Parmesan.

Even if Yamamoto weren’t so busy — he works solo at his oven from opening time until the last order — he’s not interested in putting on a show. He doesn’t throw the dough around or twirl it in the air: He just fashions it roughly into shape with his hands, before scattering the toppings in place. The finished pizza may not be perfectly circular. But who cares?

They’re so good we are never satisfied with less than a whole pizza each. We’ve found the best strategy is to get one at a time to share, ordering a second as the first arrives.

We love the Allo Stile di Napoli (“Naples style,” topped with buffalo-milk mozzarella, mini tomatoes, prosciutto and arugula; ¥2,500). But we always try to include an order of pizza bianca. The crust is cooked on its own, thin, crispy and with just enough mozzarella to moisten the upper surface, and then the toppings are simply scattered on top without further cooking. Our outright favorite is probably the least complicated of all: Prosciutto and arugula (¥2,350). It’s simply outstanding.

Obviously the pizza is what you’re there for, but there are also plenty of antipasti, both hot and cold, and a few pastas to limber up with if you’re settling in for a substantial meal. We don’t usually bother with the carpaccio (white meat fish) or caprese (rough-cut mozzarella with tomato), but the caponata (eggplant and peppers cooked down in tomato sauce) makes a fine little starter.

We also try to make room for some of the fritti (deep-fried seafood). The gamberoni (prawns) are great, but we have a special place in our hearts and stomachs for the alici. These small, one-bite sardines are cleaned, dipped in a semolina batter and deep-fried — bones and all, but no heads or tails — until they’re a nice and crunchy.

Two final recommendations: The arancini, rice balls deep-fried an appetizing golden brown, make a great takeout for days when we want a quick lunch and don’t want to wait for a table; and the lasagna, which is oven-baked and looks anything but delicate — a large slab of moist, cheesy pasta, slightly crisped and scorched at the ends — yet tastes fantastic.

And three caveats. The wine is basic vino di tavola, served in heavy tumblers, and the by-the-glass pours are way too small. The tables are wedged in cheek by jowl. And the service staff are friendly but often so harried they come across as brusque.

Not that we’re grumbling. That’s all part of the rough and ready charm of a meal at Pizzeria e Trattoria da Isa.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.