by Christine Cunanan-Miki

WHEN ITALIAN expatriates miss mama’s home cooking, they head to Elio’s. It’s not hard to see why; Elio’s provides comfort food strong in flavor and soul, served with good cheer and Mediterranean aplomb. This bustling and lively restaurant is a little oasis of Southern Italy — Napoli, or Calabria, perhaps — although actually you’ll find it in a business neighborhood in Kojimachi, central Tokyo.

The word “Locanda” conjures up the image of a warm and inviting place to stay for a decent dinner and a good night’s rest. And, walk through the heavy wooden doors and you will find yourself in a cozy trattoria run by a congenial local named Elio.

Elio was inspired to open a restaurant by the delicious treats his mama used to make. His younger brother is the chef, several of his cousins work as waiters, and many of his friends come over for dinner every night. He’s hung his favorite paintings on the walls and displayed his collection of Sicilian dolls all over the restaurant. The room perpetually smells of garlic and the entire atmosphere is noisy, chaotic, lively and lots of fun. The only thing unusual about this typical provincial Italian ristorante is the number of Japanese diners — you could be forgiven for forgetting that you are actually in Tokyo and assuming that a busload of JTB tourists have just arrived for lunch after touring the ruins of Pompeii.

The food is typically Italian. It’s traditional, unpretentious and full of unmistakably rich flavors, with that home cooked edge — even your Italian friend’s grandmother would probably vote to eat here rather than make these dishes herself. One of Elio’s best-sellers, for instance, is the Involtini de Melanzane, a baked eggplant dish with Parma ham, mozzarella cheese and basil that his mother used to make. Another favorite is the Costina di Maiale con Salsiccia al Pomodoro, a main dish consisting of tender spare ribs (stewed so long that you don’t even need a knife to cut it) and polenta with a pungent tomato sauce.

Even the lovely desserts are end-of-the-meal staples at the dinner table of any self-respecting Italian home: a typical hazelnut tart from Calabria and everyone’s favorite Baba au rum, which is basically a chiffon-type cake doused in rum. You’ll find these dishes and sweets all across Italy and at many Italian restaurants in Japan as well, but perhaps few will be as satisfying as Elio’s.

Elio’s is so authentically Italian that many Italian diplomats and long-time expatriates have basically made their second home here or more appropriately, second kitchen. And even the Japanese customers have a bit of Italy in them as well. The men and women at the table next to us spoke fluent Italian and kissed each other on the cheeks in European-style greeting, while a large group across the room arrived for dinner at nine o’clock and spent a good part of the evening making merry toasts.

The baked eggplant with parma ham and mozarella cheese (Involtini de Melanzane, ¥1,600), which is Elio’s mother’s recipe, was a clear winner; as were the paglia e fieno pasta with seafood (Paglia e Fieno ai Frutti di Mare, ¥1,800) and the polenta with pork in a tomato sauce (Costina di Maiale Con Salsiccia al Pomodoro, ¥2,400).

There are several good and inexpensive local wines. We especially liked a refreshing Tuscan white wine called Le Morge Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2003 (¥850) and a fullbodied Sicilian red called Cellaro Nero d’avola 2002 (¥850).

Any table here will give you the full-on Italian countryside ristorante experience. If you want a little more peace and quiet, there is also a private room.

Plan on spending around ¥16,000 for two, including wine.

Local Japanese professionals, long-time expatriates, Italian diplomats and their friends. The night we were there, the Italian ambassador was tucking into pasta with gusto.

Yukio Yuki, the restaurant manager, will be happy to make suggestions and answer any questions. He’s been with Elio’s for several years now, and has even visited Elio’s family home in Southern Italy.

Elio Locanda Italiana
Hanzomon House 1F
Kojimachi 2-5-2
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03 3239-6771