It is one of the enduring conundrums of eating out in Tokyo: How come, when we are blessed with so many great little bargain bistros, there aren’t just as many no-frills trattoria?
We’re not interested in La Boheme or the Capricciosa chain (though they do have their place). We’re talking about the independents — young chefs working with dedication and checkered tablecloths, bringing us honest home cooking at honest prices. You can find a three-course French dinner for, say, 3,000 yen in almost any neighborhood these days. So why hasn’t the same thing happened with Italian food?
We know it can be done — we had dinner just the other night at Taverna Vivace. This splendid little place, which opened in April in nether Azabu, proves once and for all that, in the right hands, basic home-style country cucina can be every bit as satisfying — and as easy on the budget — as its French equivalent.
Vivace sits at an intersection, far from the bustle and bright lights of Hiroo and Azabu Juban. It’s a simple, stand-alone building with minimal decoration — just a few hand-painted plates tacked to walls that have been painted a homely yellow. The floors are stone. The furniture is basic but comfortable. The room is barely big enough to fit eight tables, supplemented at this time of year by a couple more outside under an awning, separated from the busy street by a few scrawny olive shrubs.
It’s a classic two-man operation. Chef Ryuji Enomoto handles all cooking duties in his tiny (three-burner) open kitchen. On the other side of the counter, floor manager Takashi Numagami, himself an aspiring chef, takes care of customers. At the end of the evening they both roll up their sleeves and do the washing up — and then start work on rolling out and cutting the next day’s pasta.
For them, this is not merely a job, it’s a calling. For three years Enomoto worked his way around Italy as a chef and returned home with a huge enthusiasm for the kind of everyday cooking he discovered out in the provinces. He favors the forthright flavors of the hills and fishing villages.
His signature dish is his thick, hearty, slow-simmered Tuscan bean soup. Enomoto prepares it from as many as five different kinds of pulses, sometimes adding barley or potatoes, sometimes just with vegetables. With a wedge of bread and a glass of wine, this is a meal in itself. And that, along with a small salad, is the basic 1,000 yen lunch at Vivace (extra for the wine, of course).
For such a small place, the a la carte dinner menu chalked (in Japanese) on the blackboard is surprisingly complex. If you are dining a deux, plan on getting a couple of starters, maybe a pasta to share, and a main dish each. There were three of us, so we increased our order by about one dish in each category. Due to the scale of the kitchen, though, everything arrived one at a time, to be placed in the middle of the table and shared between us.
We began with bagna cauda, creamy anchovy paste with plenty of olive oil, heated just to bubbling point over a small candle, with a platter of gently blanched vegetables for dipping into it. The rabbit salad, featuring cold cuts of cooked rabbit meat scattered with whole brown lentils, was excellent. The tripe “gratin” was less so: Cooked down in an earthenware pot with large white broad beans and tomato sauce, then topped with a sprinkling of cheese, it was competent but not hugely exciting.
Our next dish, however, was brilliant. Colzetti, simple circles of pasta cut by hand from a thin layer of dough, was paired with equally fine slices of aori-ika (reef squid), sashimi-soft and so lightly cooked it was still virtually translucent. This was served in a fragrant Genovese pesto sauce (also homemade, of course), garnished with plenty of pine nuts. This was the best dish we ate all evening.
Our other pasta was a fine tagliolini, given a spicy arrabiata dressing and served with small, yellow aoyagi (bakagai) shellfish and a scattering of green beans. Though very good, it paled in comparison with the colzetti.
This was also the case with the main dishes — cold cuts of boiled veal, anointed with a creamy, tuna-based, mayonnaise-style sauce; a tasty fillet of suzuki (branzino, sea bass), grilled with rosemary and whole cloves of garlic; and simmered pork, cooked in a rich, tomato-based sauce and served with new potatoes. All were tasty, if not outstanding, but produced with care and very satisfying.
Dessert was great — coffee gelato, scoops of mango sorbet generously infused with grappa, and small squares of a delectable brownielike chocolate cake. So was the vin santo (a wonderful Ben Rye passito di pantelleria) that Numagami poured for us.
But our abiding memory of Taverna Vivace is the earnest, personal touch. If they run out of a particular wine (it’s a short list, but with some very good bottles), Numagami will dig out everything else he has in the cellar and bring it to the table, so you can pick something suitable. At the end of the evening, Enomoto comes out to check if you enjoyed your food.
They are genuinely keen for you to enjoy your meal. But with food of this quality at prices this good, they needn’t worry. Tokyo could do with many more places like this.