With seven restaurants under his belt and an eighth one the way, restaurateur (and occasional TV personality) Carmine Cozzolino has his "new Italian" cuisine down to a science. However, it was a unique locale rather than culinary wizardry that sent us to posh Aoyama's back alleys in search of Cozzolino's latest endeavor. As its name implies, Kura Carmine is an old warehouse-cum-eatery where Italy and Japan exist in a state of gastronomic harmony.

As we pushed open the sleek black and red entranceway door, the strikingly straight lines of the bamboo grove and Zen-influenced pathway beckoned us to wind along its gentle curves to the kura, or "treasure house" that was rebuilt to accommodate the restaurant. We expected this rustic edifice to be cozy and intimate, and while pleasantly surprised by the tasteful yet Spartan decor, we agreed low lighting and candles would have added to the atmosphere.

After hearing the assortment of daily specials (the menu also seems to change frequently), the smoked swordfish stuffed with cheese antipasti (JY1500) sounded too inventive to pass up. The thin, salty slices of sakana were balanced by a soft and subtle mystery cheese (marscapone perhaps?) and a drizzle of a delicate egg sauce. The carpaccio d'anatra con salso allo zenzero (duck breast, JY1600) arrived shortly thereafter and was declared the fairer of the two appetizing beauties, as the smoky meat's encircling river of mustard sauce gradually seduced us. The al dente linguine in pesto sauce appeared, and we were pleased to discover that it wasn't - as is sometimes the case - drowning in a sea of olive oil. The pesto, too, was refreshing without overpowering. The impressively presented quail with spinach (JY1900) caused quite a flap at our table. Greedily inhaling the incredibly succulent, perfectly herbed bird and understated spinach, we were astonished to find ourselves relishing the accompanying green pea and spinach mousse. And in true Mediterranean fashion, we finished with a crisp, lightly dressed green salad (JY700).

As we were attempting to discreetly undo our top buttons to make room for peach babaloa and carrot cake, they unexpectedly arrived. If you love the heavy, cream cheese-smothered cake mom used to make, you'll be disappointed. Kura Carmine's version is Italian to the core: mildly sweet and topped with a thin layer of almond-laced icing, the cake's refined taste is nothing like its North American counterpart, but is equally, if not more, gratifying. The peach babaloa was an immense palate-pleaser for at least one of us.

Kura Carmine's setting could be a little sexier, but there's a reason why it's difficult to get a seat there on weekends: fabulous, fresh and authentic Italian fare.

Pam Stoikopoulos