You don’t have to go far in Tokyo to track down good Italian food. Virtually every neighborhood boasts its own ristoranti and trattorie these days, many of them with impeccable standards. The problem is, though, the places with the best cucina tend to be overhyped and overpriced, overweening or simply over the top.
We love cooking with flair and a sense of style. We are always willing to pay for quality ingredients, prepared with skill and integrity. But more than anything, we crave settings that put us at ease, where we can loosen our belts a notch or two and settle back in our chairs in full confidence we will be well looked after. Exactly the way it is at Stefano, the wonderful little restaurant recently opened by chef Stefano Faustro in Kagurazaka.
It’s a modest place, set back from the main street and with a warm feel that immediately puts you in the right mood. Neither fussily chintzy nor starkly minimalist, it is simply furnished, with mustard-yellow walls and a few wooden beams across the ceiling. Apart from the open kitchen, there is little to distract your attention. This is as it should be — after all, you are there for the food, and it is brilliant.
Until last year Stefano worked in the Carmine group of restaurants, in charge of the kitchens at Edocchiano and Kura Carmine. But even customers who were aware of his skills back then are likely to be mightily impressed by how good his cooking is, now he has finally struck out on his own.
Most other Italian restaurants in town (including Carmine’s) stick to the mainstream of Rome, Tuscany or Lombardy. But Stefano focuses on the foods of his native Veneto, the northeast corner of Italy that lies inland from Venice. Many of the ingredients he uses — the meats, cheese and wine — come from this fertile agricultural region, as do the recipes that he has adapted from the hearty, meat-based diet of his ancestors.
We were greeted with a complementary appetizer, a small savory pastry to nibble on as we contemplated the menu. The easiest option is to work from Stefano’s five-course set meal (great value at 6,000 yen), which allows you various options for both first and main courses. But his most interesting creations are to be found among the a la carte offerings.
The antipasti set the tone perfectly. Plump prawns served on a bed of creamy polenta, imbued with plenty of Parmesan (for our money, one of those classic irresistible flavor combinations) and topped with small cubes of pan-fried zucchini in a herb-driven sauce. And bite-size morsels of deep-fried anguilla (freshwater eel), layered with vinegar-marinated leek, garnished with a tangle of crisp, fine potato strings and a couple of fingers of grilled negi on the side.
All of the focaccia and other bread is made on the premises, and so is the pasta. Tagliatelli al anatra is always a favorite of ours, and this one did not disappoint. The golden-yellow pasta was mixed with generous amounts of dark duck meat and plenty of roasted pine nuts. Like all the courses, this was not some delicate tidbit intended to titillate anorexic appetites. It was a wholesome, full-flavored serving large enough to be split between two.
Stefano produces great fish and seafood — we had a perfect trout for lunch the other day — but his true metier lies with meat. Cuts of white guinea fowl breast were rolled in slices of speck (a delectable cured ham) and served with a healthy slice of pan-fried foie gras and potato slices interspersed with oozing mozzarella cheese. And the shin of lamb had been simmered for so long in an aromatic red wine sauce it was almost as soft as the mashed potato that came with it. This is cooking that satisfies on all levels — aesthetic, sensual, visceral.
The wine list is too brief to offer much in the way of choice. That said, we thoroughly enjoyed our bottle of Colli di Conegliano, a full-bodied red from the hills above Treviso that drank well throughout the meal. To help finish it off, we nibbled on some of the unusual cheeses Stefano has sourced. These included a dense, flavorful Montasio aged for a year, which he gets his mother to send over to Japan; an equally concentrated 10-month Asiago Stavecchio; and a lovely, peppery Gorgonzola piccante, which (if you ask nicely) you may be invited to dip into a small saucer of acacia honey.
There is no dessert menu, since Stefano prepares a different selection each day. We asked for a mixed selection, which included banana semifredo; a thick, unctuous mousse of dark chocolate; and a tranche of berry fruit tart. All were superb.
To round off the evening, there is grappa to sip with your espresso. Or you could try some of Stefano’s homemade vov, a cream liqueur made from a base of Marsala wine and vodka. It’s another recipe he learned from his grandmother — and another element that makes his place unique.
With food as good as this, it will not be long before word gets out and Stefano is “discovered.” We are not worried that he will put on airs and pretensions, just that it will get much harder to snare reservations at his restaurant. So that is all the more reason for enjoying it while you can. We have already programmed our PDA to remind us to return at frequent intervals.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5