Champion chef spreads Naples pizza culture here

by Akiko Kondo

Makoto Onishi, the winner of the title of best pizza maker at the annual Naples pizza festival in 2003, busied himself kneading dough and topping pizzas with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

Then he welcomed hundreds of pizza lovers to Omotesando Hills, Tokyo’s newest commercial-residential complex.

An estimated 71,000 people flooded the complex for its grand opening Feb. 11, and many shops were jammed with people. The Italian restaurant Trattoria & Pizzeria Zazza on the third floor, where 30-year-old Onishi works, was no exception.

Many aficionados were lined up in front of the pizzeria waiting to try Onishi’s hand-made pies.

Onishi is quite well-known among fans for his impressive career. In September 2003, he became the first foreigner to win the title of best pizza maker at Naples’s Pizza Fest, beating local masters even though he had been making Neapolitan pizzas for only two years.

He went to Italy in 2001 and studied pizza-making in a pizzeria on Ischia Island, about 30 km southwest of Naples. Until then, he had worked as a cook in Tokyo.

After taking the title, the Italian media flooded the young champion with requests for TV appearances. But Onishi modestly claims he is still a half-baked pizza master.

“There is always someone better,” said the “pizzaiolo,” or pizza chef. “After four years of pizza-making, I am still not sure if I am skilled enough.”

He reminds himself that without continuing to strive for excellence, a pizzaiolo will not remain one for long.

Indeed, to maintain his skills he makes 200 to 300 pizzas a day — and eats at least two whole ones.

But there is another factor that drives his enthusiasm for making pizza. It is his passion to establish Neapolitan pizza culture in Japan.

“I want many people, regardless of age, sex or nationality, to know more about Naples cuisine by just eating the pizza,” Onishi said. “The attention-getting Omotesando Hills is an excellent place to set the trend.”

Omotesando Hills was constructed on the former site of the Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments, built in 1927, known for their good communal housing layout and the most advanced construction technologies of the time.

The new complex, designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, consists of six floors above ground and another six below, with a total floor space of 33,916.13 sq. meters. Main developer Mori Building Co. expects 10 million people to visit the complex a year, and spend 15 billion yen.

Omotesando has long been a trend-setting neighborhood, bursting with top designer and luxury boutiques.

The district’s “creative” atmosphere has encouraged many entrepreneurs to launch new businesses there. In Omotesando Hills, almost half of the 93 boutiques, restaurants and other shops are the first outlets either in Tokyo or in Japan.

Onishi said the scarcity of “true” pizzerias in Tokyo means a majority of Japanese people are still unfamiliar with Neapolitan pizza, which is crispy outside but doughy inside with simple toppings, such as basil, mozzarella cheese and olive oil layered over tomato sauce.

The style is even more unfamiliar to people living in less urban areas, he said.

According to the Naples Pizza Association, sponsors of the annual Pizza Fest, there are 200 certified Verace Pizza Napoletana — True Naples Pizza — pizzerias around the world, but only about 10 are in Japan, almost all of them located in big cities such as Tokyo.

“I hope to dispatch and establish the Naples food culture from here, where many people from many places are exposed to many different cultures,” Onishi said.

Rather than eating pizza elegantly with knife and fork, Onishi wants his customers to enjoy his pizza more casually with their hands, right after it is served.

“Pizzas can be purchased cheaply and are supposed to be eaten more in a manner like a fast food,” he said, adding passionately, “I want to convey the joy of eating and the excitement that I felt when I first ate Neapolitan pizza.”