Tokyo Neapolitan: The New Wave of Japanese Pizza

The most obsessive pizza makers in Tokyo have given birth to a style that’s all their own — and it’s among the best Neapolitan pizza in the world

This is an article from EATER.com from February 2017 by Craig Mod

Tsubasa Tamaki was concerned with the state of the pizza in his new oven. Wearing his uniform of white t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white Converse sneakers, he had stopped talking and began to watch the dough, eyeing the fire; a second too long and the pizza would be ruined. The sauce burbled, he thrust his metal pizza peel under the pie, raised it close to the low brick ceiling, flicked his wrist a few times, giving it a twirl on the end of the peel, singeing the crust like a creme brulee glaze. He pulled back and one of his signature marinara pizzas emerged from the blistering 900 degree Fahrenheit center of his custom stone and iron kiln. It smoked on the plate. His timing was perfect. It usually is.

“Most pizzas are cooked over here, on the right side, far from the fire,” Tamaki explained to me in Japanese, drawing an overhead picture of the oven, a three-quarters circle, flat at the bottom, the wood burning off to the left, a line down the middle. “That’s the safest place. But I put the marinara in the center, close to the flames. When other pizza guys see this they can’t believe I’d take this risk,” he said. “There is no room for mistake in the center. Timing has to be perfect. And then at the last moment I throw in a handful of sugi chips” — Japanese cedar — “flaring up the fire, glazing the dough, giving it just the slightest hint of bitterness from the wood. That bitterness deepens all the other flavors and amplifies the umami.”

Tamaki makes a style of Neapolitan pizza that’s not quite NYC, not quite Naples; it’s something all his own, and something worthy in and of itself of a visit to Tokyo. Over the last 20-odd years, new kinds of Neapolitan-style pizza have taken shape and matured in Tokyo. The style derives from the classic Neapolitan — a thin-but-not-too-thin crust, lush San Marzano tomatoes, and careful attention to the fundamentals of fine-grained doppio zero flour, olive oil, and water — but in the same way that New York’s Neapolitan is often called neo-Neapolitan (because the center is usually less soupy, the toppings sometimes more baroque, and the old New York ovens fired by coal, not wood), the pies coming out of the ovens of Tamaki and his brethren can only be called Tokyo Neapolitan. A perfect Tokyo Neapolitan pizza is defined by locally sourced wood burned in a locally sourced oven, an extra punch of salt, and a delicateness of dough that extends to the tip of the fire-seared crust.

The style wasn’t invented by Tamaki, but instead seems to trace its lineage back to a pizzaiolo by the name of Susumu Kakinuma. “It was like meeting the prime minister of pizza,” Tamaki told me, as he remembered his first encounter with the master. He would go on to spend years studying under Kakinuma. “He didn’t talk. It was like the military. He was kind and brilliant, but he didn’t say much.”

Whether the years have softened him, or I just caught him on a good day, Kakinuma was nothing but smiles and stories during the several hours we chatted in front of his oven. He still makes a killer pizza margherita, with a signature “salt punch” (although he’s lightened it over the years) and crisp, gossamer dough. His restaurant, Seirinkan, was one of the first Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the city. It opened as an aberration in a sea of Roman-style, thin-crust pizza shops that defined so much of what was then expected when you ordered a “pizza” in Tokyo in the early 1990s. Though the number of Neapolitan-style pizzerias in Japan has exploded over the last decade (even L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, arguably Napoli’s most revered pizza shop, now has a branch), including many accredited by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a surprising number of the very best pizza chefs in Tokyo still trace their lineage directly to Kakinuma and his disciplined approach to pizza. If there was a progenitor of Tokyo Neapolitan, it was he.

Seirinkan has been located on the same block for 22 years, nestled on the south side of Nakameguro Station — the quiet side, away from the high-rise towers, the river, and bustle of the crowds. Inside, it feels vaguely religious: Seirinkan translates literally as the house (館) of holy or sacred (聖) wood (林). Because of land constraints, the shop is a narrow, vertical, almost cathedral-like structure, three stories tall, with a wrought iron, tightly spiraling staircase piercing straight through from top to bottom. Up and down, around and around, day and night, pizzas are carried from the oven on the first floor to faithful customers on the second and third floors. The tables are surrounded by heavy wooden chairs, each a single pew, embellished with a crucifix-adorned box on the backrest for holding hymnals and other devotional materials. The effect is equal parts Vatican, H. R. Giger, and Tim Burton. The menu, like the word of god, is unchanging; Seirinkan offers any pizza you like, as long as it’s a margherita or marinara.

When I remarked on the brilliance of Seirinkan’s name, especially in light of how he had built an urban temple to fire, wood, and dough, Kakinuma corrected me: “It’s actually a pun on Hollywood. All of this is entertainment” he said, raising his hands, smiling and looking around his restaurant, the interior of which is inspired not by a church but Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Those pews he uses for chairs? “They just happened to have them at a used furniture shop.”

Unlike so many chefs on a crusade to elevate and perfect a single food, Kakinuma’s awareness of pizza doesn’t stem from a treasured childhood memory or a revelatory experience of his own, but from watching Saturday Night Fever. “I was 18 or 19 years old,” he said. “The first time I thought pizza looked amazing was in the scene where John Travolta is walking around. I mean, I know pizza is from Italy, but damn, that looked good.”

Kakinuma first went to Italy in the ’80s on a whim, with no intent to study pizza. He then returned to spend a year in Naples in the early ’90s, backpacking and lounging as he looked for a job. Nobody would hire him. “None of the Italians knew what to do with a Japanese person,” he said. “There were only five of us in the city.” Though he couldn’t get work in the kitchen, he focused on training his palate, almost accidentally, by eating his way through the city. The pizzas in Naples were simpler and a bit heartier than anything he had tasted in Tokyo. And, as a backpacker bonus, they were cheap, the equivalent of roughly ¥300. The more he ate, the more enamored he became with the idea of bringing them back home to Nakameguro.

But Kakinuma is adamant that his pizzas aren’t, in fact, Neapolitan. “Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re Kakinuma-style pizzas. Look, Japanese people are really free. What I mean by that is, Japanese pray on New Year’s Day at a Shinto shrine, get married in a Christian church, and hold their funerals at a Buddhist temple. They’re beholden to no single point of view.” Kakinuma feels a freedom to push and pull within the general cosmos of Neapolitan-style, disregarding Italian tradition at will. “What’s wonderful about pizza is that it really is a bit like sushi,” he said. “You don’t touch the base ingredients. Your goal is to pull the richest inherent flavor from the ingredients at hand.”

In the early days, Kakinuma was more experimental. “Everything was new. Really, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had only a vague sense of how to make a pizza. And so my customers and I experimented in tandem. I’d try something, and they’d let me know if it was any good. They’d come back the next week and say, ‘Hey! It’s gotten better!'”

If there seems to be an element of improv jazz to that, it’s because Kakinuma’s original dream was to be a drummer. There are remnants of this past life throughout the shop: A secret music studio in the basement next to the bathroom (you can sometimes hear him playing after the last pie has been fired in the evening), and as he slides his uncooked pies onto his pizza peel, he uses an old Gretsch practice drum pad to hold up the handle. “I wanted Kakinuma-style pizza to be obvious, my own style, in the same way when you hear Steve Gadd play, or Buddy Rich play — you instantly know who is it.”

The word “craftsperson” doesn’t quite capture the totality of dedication and cultural reverence embedded in “shokunin.” This word represents a person’s full commitment to every detail of a craft, whether they’re a temple carpenter (miyadaiku) or head sake brewer (touji) or pizza maker. Japan so reveres shokunin, artists, and purveyors of culture that the Emperor doles out Living National Treasure designations — ningenkokuhō — to “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties.” (Jiro, of Dreams of Sushi fame, was so named one year before he was blessed by Michelin.) The universe of shokunin is composed of constellations of masters and students — shishō and deshi, respectively — and often months or years of apprenticeship are required before even being allowed to touch the tools, practice the craft or, god forbid, serve.

It’s hard to find a food in Japan that isn’t infused with shokunin philosophy. But the brilliance of eating pizza in Tokyo is that it’s the perfect antidote to a washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) binge. People rightfully come to the city to eat sushi or tempura or soba or ramen or some two-hour kappō masterpiece of reimagined Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though, here’s the thing: After a few days of nonstop washoku, you really benefit from a palate cleanse. A Tokyo Neapolitan-style marinara gives your entire mouth a reprieve with its acidic saltiness. And because Tokyo Neapolitan pies tend to be smaller — just 185 grams — than their NYC counterparts, and because the dough is so light, you’re rarely left feeling the usual bloat wrought by so many other pizzas.

Eating exceptional pizza also happens to be a first-rate excuse to stretch a bit beyond the confines of Tokyo’s urban center. Pizza Dada, located in the ancient Japanese capital, Kamakura, is a quick one-train ride down from Tokyo — just 45 minutes from, say, Shibuya or Tokyo Station. Run by Kengo Inoue, another deshi of Kakinuma, it has to be more densely surrounded by Zen and Shinto shrines then any other pizza shop in the world. It’s just a few hundred yards even from the famous Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, so that one minute you are drinking freshly whisked matcha in the shade of a bamboo forest, and the next minute biting into a slice of Tokyo Neapolitan nonpareil.

While discussing pizza over his masterful (but decidedly unofficial) rendition of a D.O.C. (“Denominazione di Origine Controllata”) that uses buffalo mozzarella and semi-dried tomatoes, but no sauce, with pitch-perfect crust like Tamaki’s and Kakinuma’s — crust that has just the right amount of body, crackles on bite, is singed with patches of char, and never feels burdensome to finish — Inoue extended and generalized Kakinuma’s sushi analogy. Pizza, he believes, fits snugly into the canon of Japanese food.

“Because of Japan’s culinary history, pizza is actually quite natural for us,” Inoue said. “Pizza shops are not quite like bakeries, not quite like restaurants — everything comes together in a single moment; 60 seconds determine the success or failure of a meal.” While there is prep that takes days (“I try to let my dough sit for three days”), the thrust of the work is nearly instantaneous, like a truly great tempura or sushi meal, where each vegetable is deep-fried or each piece of fish cut and placed upon rice before your very eyes, to be immediately consumed.

Opinions between generations of deshi and shishō were divergent on whether or not to cut pies fresh out of the oven. When Inoue served me his unofficial D.O.C., he plopped it down sans slicing. I noticed a slicer next to his station and asked him why he hadn’t used it. It turns out the decision to pre-cut a pizza comes with its own philosophical underpinnings.

Inoue believes that because a pizza is not perfectly symmetrical in terms of ingredient distribution, each slice is inevitably a little different; there’s no way to cut a pizza in a way that perfectly captures its entire essence in a single slice. His ideal is for one person to eat an entire pie on their own, ensuring they experience the full spectrum of flavors. Reluctantly, Inoue will cut his pies, but only for customers he thinks will have a hard time cutting it themselves. “There’re a lot of old folks in Kamakura,” he explained.

Kakinuma has never cut his — he sticks with Naples tradition. Tamaki cuts without hesitation. “If it’s a group of people, they eat the pizza in a matter of seconds,” he said. “I cut it to the group size — to save them time and make sure they eat it while it’s as fresh and hot as possible. If I didn’t cut it, it’d take longer to cut themselves. But, anyway, the dough isn’t weak. It won’t get soggy that fast.”

It took Tamaki almost five years of training — a relatively short time in the world of shokunin — before he felt ready to open his own shop. He opened Pizza Strada in 2011, right after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, amid rolling blackouts and fears of a full nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Since then, I’ve ushered at least a dozen New Yorkers over to the shop to eat his marinara pie. Most put up a fuss on the way in (“But we’re in Japan.”). Nobody complains after their first bite. Several returned on their own the following day to eat it again.

Strada expanded on Seirinkan’s Spartan menu, offering five pizzas when they opened, broadening over the years to 10 or so, depending on the month. The two standouts are the marinara and the namesake “Strada” pie, a margherita variant distinguished by its smoked mozzarella. In lesser hands, the smoked flavor would be oppressive, but here it works in concert with the tomatoes and especially the crust, giving what feels like a native kick to the wood-singed dough. Good as the Strada may be, I give a slight edge to the marinara for its fanatical purity: It represents the apotheosis of what’s possible with just tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, and dough. Remarkably, Tamaki has never been to Naples or New York; his entire macrocosm of empirical pizza knowledge begins and ends in Japan. And so, if Kakinuma doesn’t feel beholden to Italian tradition, Tamaki’s pizzas are even more fully influenced by his experience and network in Japan.

And yet, because Strada wasn’t 100 percent Tamaki’s, because he had investors, and because he felt beholden to them, he was hamstrung. Sure, he had dedicated himself to pizza for over a decade, he studied, and modified what he learned from his apprenticeship into world-class pies — certainly the best pizzas I have ever tasted — but he still wondered, were better ones out there? “It’s disrespectful to serve anything you don’t think is the best you can do,” Tamaki told me, eyes wide, hands raised. “I would never say, ‘Eat this because it’s good.’ But I can say that my goal is to make you the best pizza you’ve ever had. I want you to be moved by my pizza.”

Tamaki believes so fervently in the ideal of an even better, closer-to-perfect pizza that he left Strada at the end of 2016, handing pizzaiolo duties off to his deshi, Hiroaki Kaneshiro . In the early days, had you been passing by Strada at two or three in the morning — on your way home after a few drinks in the neighborhood, perhaps — Kaneshiro could be seen inside the shop, honing his skills on old pizza dough. He’s now more than up to snuff; the marinara remains idyllic, punchy, a revelation.

Pizza Studio Tamaki opened its doors on February 20. It’s a place all Tamaki’s own: the initials on the neon sign permit him to be as bold, free, and experimental as needed to take the risks he believes are necessary for discovering a Platonic ideal of a pie. The front wall of PST is an accordion of folding glass, which opens, today, to the big blue skies of winter Tokyo. Across the street is an open park, children playing in the afternoon, a riot of cherry trees promising a grand bloom each April. This new laboratory-turned-pizzeria is a scant 15minute walk from Strada. The choice of location is less a shot across the bow than an act of pragmatism: Tamaki knows the neighborhood (and legions of his fans live nearby), and happened to find an ideal corner location, just one street back from a main thoroughfare.

The “Studio” of PST belies Tamaki’s deep respect to his shishōs. “I want to take the passion that I learned when I studied from Kakinuma and Nakamura (a first generation deshi of Kakinuma who was hugely influential on Tamaki’s style) and try to give that to the next generation of pizza makers.” And so the studio part of Pizza Studio Tamaki is about inviting young pizza devotees to be apprenticed within the shokunin fold.

If Kakinuma’s riffs and passions laid the groundwork for Tokyo Neapolitan, Tamaki’s latest pizzas take it a step further: He’s now working with Japanese farmers to find the best basil and garlic, and his salt comes from Okinawa, his home prefecture. His tomatoes, cheeses, and oils are still imported from Italy, but his flour is a special mix about which he’s reticent to reveal too many details.

Even PST’s oven is homegrown, the product of a collaboration with a maker of goemonburo (traditional Japanese bathtubs). It burns only Japanese wood: nara (Japanese oak), sakura (cherry blossom), and buna (beech). “Normal Napoli ovens are high and the air gets trapped,” Tamaki explained. “The oven we’ve designed is lower. The movement of air in this new oven is wonderful, two twists before leaving.” And the large-leaf trees he burns have less oil than others, producing less smoke, giving him even greater control and more precision.

Strada, Seirinkan, and PST keep their doors open year-round for the same reason: so that the oven doesn’t cool. (Inoue occasionally closes Dada, but makes sure someone keeps the fire blazing.) Getting an oven back up to full temperature can take as long as three days, Tamaki told me. (He also told me a new oven takes months to properly and fully warm up.) An oven is a tool, and maintaining a consistent and predictable oven temperature is a non-negotiable in making exceptional pizza. Especially if you want to take risks, cook down the middle.

Tamaki told me his favorite drink with pizza is root beer, not some fancy red wine or cocktail. “A&W, like we have in Okinawa.” As for house-made drinks at PST, the lemonade is weirdly inimitable. Tamaki perked up, sprang into action when he remembered to serve me some. It’s made using organic lemons from Kamogawa in Chiba Prefecture, mixed with Chiba honey and local ginger, distilled with lemon peels, filtered, and served over crystal clear ice with a splash of still or sparkling water — it has a syrupy thickness in its flavor density, but tastes neither too sweet, nor too sour. It’s a near-perfect embodiment of the word “lemonade.”

“I’ve modified all the (old) recipes. The lemonade is amazing, but everything is better,” Tamaki said. The biggest recipe modification I could detect was to the dough, which has more of a bitter bite and a little more substance. The mozzarella and pecorino are a bit smoother. But his pies are still light — and they cut easily. When I asked him how he got his dough to feel so light he told me it was just an “image,” a “sensation” he had in how he wanted his dough to be. “Sixth sense,” was his final conclusion.

“I believe you should be able to eat one of my pizzas and not feel stuffed,” Tamaki continued. “I want every part of the pie to work in concert with the others.” He made a disgusted face when the question of crust — or mimi, in Japanese — came up. “In movies, you see people leave the crust. Unacceptable. Is the crust really that bad over there? I work hard to make my crust delicious. I never want anyone to feel like it’s too much, something to be left behind.”

When I asked Tamaki about the surge in decent Neapolitan pizza shops in Tokyo, he scoffed. “Bring it on,” he said. “I want every shop in my neighborhood to be a Neapolitan pizzeria. I want the challenge. All you can hope for is that the customers choose your pizza, your taste. And all I can do is make the best pizza I’m capable of making and hope it satisfies them.” I asked if he’s ever had a pizza better than his. “No,” he responded, without hesitation.

Back in Seirinkan, Kakinuma hopped up the spiral stairs to take care of something and I found myself alone on the first floor with his current deshi. The several hours during which Kakinuma and I chatted, the young trainee had stood silently off in the corner, hands by his side, always ready to jump into action. When the phone rang, he took care to answer it and jot down reservations; delivered fresh pizzas to the bustling lunch crowd around us; and went around collecting money after all the meals. With lunch done and the place emptied out he began scraping Kakinuma’s marble pizza station to a state of surgical cleanliness.

I didn’t ask the young deshi his name. Recently, at a small restaurant in Kyoto, I mistakenly asked the name of a young trainee and the master quickly cut in, “He doesn’t have a name yet.” I like this philosophy: You will know their name when it’s time to know it.

Instead, I asked Kakinuma’s deshi where he was from and why he chose to study at Seirinkan. “I moved here from Hiroshima as soon as I graduated high school,” he said. He had tasted one of Kakinuma’s pizzas years ago on a trip to Tokyo and it changed his life; pizza became his destiny. “I told my parents I was off to Tokyo and they wished me luck. I had to study with the master.”

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