The search for great pizza, particularly in Tokyo, can be a perilous journey. Undaunted,
Stuart Braun hunts down the perfect pie.
Since Raffaele Esposito of Naples
created a pizza for Queen Margherita in 1889, what started as a simple peasant meal has
turned into a global dietary staple. But while the simple mushroom or anchovy pizza is
still sold on the streets of Naples for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it has undergone
significant reinvention elsewhere.
When fusion virtuoso Wolfgang Puck started slapping goats cheese, capers, salmon caviar
and sun-dried tomatoes on his thin crust bases at LAs Spago restaurant, the gourmet
pizza phenomena was unleashed-forthwith few remain content with a pastoral pepperoni and
mozzarella. Likewise in Tokyo, Spago has spearheaded a pizza renaissance that has seen the
humble Neapolitan dish emerge with four cheeses and cherry tomatoes from wood-fired ovens
the city over.
"pizza and jazz"
What sells as authentic
Italian pizza in Tokyo will most often have a hint of gourmet flare. Napule, in Aoyama,
with its warm, rustic ambiance, wood-fired oven and exposed kitchen combines contemporary
flavors (the seafood pizza is a must) with traditional technique-the oven was built by a
Neapolitan master craftsmen with stones from Mount Vesuvia! In a similar vein, La Befana
pizzeria in Shimokitazawa cooks up some of Tokyos favorite traditional
pizzas-Neapolitan, marinara, prosciutto, rucola-with interesting deviations-try the
covaccino pizza dough flavored with pepper, garlic and Parmesan cheese and
topped with raw ham (reasonably priced from JY1500-JY1800).
Contemporary California-style gourmet pie is becoming de rigueur at a number of pizza
restaurants around Tokyo. Not surprisingly, Spago Tokyo in Roppongi is, if only
conceptually, leading the way. Regular main menu pizza items include the calzone (stuffed
pizza) with mushrooms, bell pepper, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese
(JY1900); and pizza with asparagus, squash, sun dried tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and
basil (JY1900). Current specials include pizza with lamb sausage, eggplant, tomatoes,
zucchini, celery and okra (JY1900), or with home smoked salmon, dill sour cream, and black
Caviar (JY2100). Satisfaction is guaranteed.
spiritual home of the pizza
and well-patronized Brendans Pizzakaya is another mainstay of the emerging gourmet
pizza scene. Here, the pizze has been unashamedly Americanized-for example, the BLT (crisp
bacon, lettuce and fresh tomato on a homemade crust, JY2900) or Santa Fe (Southwest
flavors of lime chicken, caramelized onions and fresh guacamole, JY3000). These
arent tame hybrid pizzas, and Brendan employs an old-fashioned dough recipe
utilizing five kinds of flour-whole wheat, semolina, rye and two kinds of white-and that
takes two days to prepare. Other standouts including a Vegetarian Delight (tomato,
mushroom, olive, garlic, green pepper and onion, JY3000), Tangy BBQ Chicken (cheese,
chicken, onions and tangy BBQ sauce, JY2900) and Taco Grande (Mexican taco meat, onions
and tomatoes topped with Cheddar cheese and jalapeńos, JY3000). Those living around the
Minato ward can also take advantage of Brendans delivery service.
A truly great pizza is hinged on the consistency of the dough, and at Savoy, the
salubrious soft crust underpins one of the most authentic and mesmerizing pizzas this side
of Naples. With only two choices-marinara or margarita (both for JY1500)-it might seem
like the pizza at Savoy is an afterthought to the jazz music and fine selection of red
wines. But here simplicity is the key, and one has the feeling that the chef spent years
in the back streets of Napoli perfecting his art. The soft, slightly crunchy dough, the
rich tomato sauce, chunks of creamy mozzarella, whole basil leaves and splash of extra
virgin olive oil come together to make a sensational pizza, cooked in literally three
minutes in Savoys rustic, raging wood-fired oven.
Elsewhere, upmarket Italian restaurant chain Salvatore, with venues in Aoyama, Roppongi,
Azabu and the new Atago Green Hills complex, offer up a Neapolitan pie with a gourmet
twist. Witness the hand-tossed, basil-packed margarita (JY2200) cook on the lava rock
grill and savor the flavor of one the cities best pizzas. A more sedate, though
none-the-less spectacular, pizza experience can be had at Isola in Shirogane (near Ebisu).
While the accent is on authenticity, Isola remains a step above your peasant pizze,
offering inventively prepared-in the wood oven, of course-pies including the Sarcia e
brocoli (mozzarella, homemade sausage, broccoli, JY2500) and Siciliana (tomato, sardine,
caper, olive, JY2300). Another of Tokyos hidden pizza Meccas, Isola proves
that the quest for the perfect pizza might soon be over.