by Kelly Wetherille
Tucked down a nondescript street in the business district of Hanzomon is Elio Locanda Italiana, a Tokyo fixture for over a decade. Owned and operated by the boisterous, jovial Elio Orsara, the restaurant first gained notoriety in 1997 (just months after opening) when Giorgio Armani told a Japanese TV reporter that Elio was his favorite place to eat in Tokyo. Suddenly flocks of Japanese diners descended on the quaint eatery, and the restaurant shot to fame, never again to return to obscurity.
Elio attributes his success as a restauranteur to his commitment to quality and authenticity. Despite having been advised time and time again that in order to succeed in this country he would have to adapt his food to Japanese tastes, Elio was steadfast in his belief that sticking to his grandmother’s recipes for hearty, traditional Italian food would eventually pay off. And how right he was.
Locanda means ‘inn’ in Italian, and the food is based on fare that one might find in a small, family-run country bed and breakfast. Fresh fish is brought in daily from the sea surrounding Hachijojima and other nearby islands, caught fresh by Yasuhiro Mikata, the restaurant’s resident wine and fish expert. Most of the cheeses and wines are imported directly from Italy to ensure authentic tastes, and spices are grown locally, using seeds imported from Italy. Still other ingredients, such as ricotta cheese and the sausage we tried, are made from scratch at the Locanda.
Elio is family business in the truest sense of the term. The recipes come mainly from Elio’s grandmother, who used to own a locanda in Southern Italy, and the executive chef is Elio’s cousin Germano. Most of the staff have also been with Elio for several years, and together they form a sort of extended family. The decor of the restaurant also resembles a family home or inn, with authentic relics and framed and autographed photos of Elio’s many celebrity customers covering the walls.
We started off our meal with a glass of spumante and an appetizer of bruschetta, followed by some of the best handmade spaghetti I have ever tasted. Spaghetti alla chitarra was covered in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, Elio’s homemade ricotta cheese, and a chili pepper and meat past called ‘nduja. The spiciness of the peppers was perfectly offset by the cheese, and the tomatoes pulled everything together into a perfectly harmonious dish.
For the main course we opted for the red snapper, caught fresh just a day before and fried to perfection with a thin, crispy outer coating. Although the fish used at Elio is caught locally, it is prepared using traditional Italian recipes. Pacific fish, however, have more fat on them than Mediterranean fish, meaning that the cooking method sometimes differs. Snapper, for example, would normally be grilled in Italy, but here it needs to be fried in a frying pan in order to preserve its natural flavor.
As we savored our dessert of licorice mousse and a delectable semifreddo (semi-frozen) concoction of chilled ricotta cheese, dried fruits, and chocolate, Elio came over to chat with us over a coffee. After asking what we thought of the food (excellent), he began explaining to us the history and philosophy of the restaurant. The point he stressed most is that he wants Elio to be a place where people, even celebrities, can go to relax. I, for one, can vouch that he has certainly achieved his goal.
Best table: All tables in the cozy dining hall are equally comfortable and welcoming. Prices: ¥1,600 to ¥3,800 for lunch and ¥5,500 to ¥10,000 for dinner. Location: Just a one-minute walk from exit 1 of Hanzomon station.
Open daily (11:45–15:00 and 17:45–23:00)
2-5-2 Kojimachi, Chiyoda-ku Tel. 03-3239-6771 www.elio.co.jp
Photos courtesy of Elio Locanda Italiana