Slice of Tokyo: How Japan Became a Pizza Hotspot

Tokyo is home to some 6,000 Italian restaurants — and a growing community of chefs crafting some of the finest pizza in the world.

This is an article from Medium from September 2019 by Matt Goulding

Tsubasa Tamaki didn’t dream of pizza. He dreamed of architecture, of following in his mother’s footsteps and designing buildings in Okinawa, where he spent the first 18 years of his life. He dreamed of being a golf instructor, of converting his silky swing into a model for aspiring linksmen. He dreamed of being on television, like his cousin, a ventriloquist who made a name for himself across Japan making special sounds from barely moving lips.

Above all, he dreamed of being famous, a dream that carried him from the shores of the southern islands to the streets of Tokyo in search of his big break. Serving pizza — his part-time gig at a mediocre family restaurant — was only a pit stop on the road to something bigger.

Tamaki’s earliest pizza memory from his childhood comes from Shakey’s, one of the first big pizza chains to land in Japan, where 880 yen — about $8 — got you all the pizza you could eat. But he doesn’t remember much about the actual pizza. “What I remember is the balloon they’d give kids after the meal.”

And yet, here he is in front of me, a 39-year-old man who spent the better part of two decades not really caring all that much about pizza, making some of the most delicious pizzas I’ve ever eaten.

First, a pizza marinara, the original pizza, and still the measuring stick by which all serious pizzaioli should be judged. Tamaki’s marinara — the concentrated warmth of the tomatoes, the floral punch of baked oregano, the garlic sliced so thin it nearly liquefies into the pizza — could make a Neapolitan’s toes curl.

Next, a riff on a margherita, made with cherry tomatoes and smoked mozzarella, a pizza so pregnant with possibilities that its inventor blessed it with his own name: the Tamaki.

Finally, the Bismarck, a composition of shaved button mushrooms and house-made sausage crowned with an egg from a pampered hen, which bakes up in the oven like the rising sun. I tear off pieces of the leopard-spotted crust and dip it directly into the miasma of rendered sausage fat and molten yolk.

As I chew through these extraordinary specimens, I also chew on the history Tamaki has just laid out for me and wonder what right this man has to be making some of the finest pizza on the planet. When I ask what in his life had prepared him for this moment, he shrugs, flashing the kind of smile that should have made him a television star long before he touched a pizza peel.

“When I was a kid, I loved fire.”

Unlike Tamaki, I did dream of pizza. For many years, it was all I thought about, and almost all that I ate. Shortly after graduating college, the dream was to sell grilled pizzas to image-conscious Angelenos at farmers’ markets. In 2011, the dream took me to Naples, where I enrolled in a certification course at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the closest thing there is to a governing body of pizza. After passing my final exam before a panel of Naples’ old guard of pizzamakers, I asked the judges who else, besides the Italians, were making good pizzas. Most just smirked and ignored the question, as if it had no reasonable answer. But one of the older gentlemen waited until the conversation moved on before waving me in close: “Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but the Japanese are making better pizzas than we are.”

My dream of owning a world-class pizzeria collapsed under the weight of my own pizza-making mediocrity, but my dream of eating world-class pizza marched fearlessly forward. I ate it everywhere — from Palermo to the Piedmont, from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires — but after the class in Naples, I knew where I needed to go.

It didn’t take much time in Japan to discover that pizza’s kind of a big deal. In Naples, the birthplace of pizza, a city powered by blistered flour, crushed tomato, and melted mozzarella, a place that takes pizza so seriously that unesco enshrined the craft with its coveted World Heritage status, there are around 800 pizzerias. In Tokyo, a city better known for sushi, soba, ramen, tempura, udon, yakitori, yakiniku, and high-end French cuisine, there are 1,405 pizzerias.

The most shocking part of this profusion of pizza is that Japan discovered the world’s most popular food just a couple of generations ago. It first arrived in Kobe in 1944, on the backs of an Italian naval crew. Nearly a decade later, a former GI and all-around shady character named Nicola Zappetti opened Nicola’s in Roppongi, attracting patrons like then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko. Pizza was officially on the map.

The early years of pizza in Japan were far from ­promising — driven more by American commercialism than Italian authenticity. Frozen pizza from the States arrived in Japanese supermarkets in the 1960s, followed by Domino’s in 1985. But true wood-fired pizza started showing up in Tokyo in the early 1980s and emanated outward; not too long after, the Japanese began cracking the code.

I’ve eaten remarkable pizzas all around Japan — on a bench beside a temple in Kyoto, in a bustling trattoria in Hiroshima, in a cabin in the woods in the mountains of Hokkaido. The one thing they all shared, beyond their innate deliciousness, was a strong vein of Neapolitan inspiration: wood-fired, puffy-rimmed, lightly blistered, quickly cooked pizzas built with San Marzano tomatoes and imported mozzarella.

If anyone is responsible for the profusion of first-rate pizzerias around Japan, it’s the 60-year-old, shaggy-haired man before me: Susumu Kakinuma, the fire-taming force behind Seirinkan, Tokyo’s cathedral of pizza. But just like Tamaki, Kakinuma’s first love was not pizza. Even to this day, he still sees the hierarchy clearly: “Music will always be first for me.”

As much as he loves playing the drums, loves the Beatles, would prefer to be onstage jamming rather than stretching dough and scattering cheese, Kakinuma realized back in the ’80s that he wouldn’t be able to survive off his music. So he took a job at the National Institute of Public Health doing tobacco research. He had an Italian girlfriend back then, and when she took him home to meet her family in Naples in 1985, he found a love that would outlast the relationship. “Somehow eating pizza made me nostalgic for a past I didn’t know,” says Kakinuma.

Like many older Japanese, his first pizza experience had been in a kissaten, a classic Japanese coffee shop, that served slices made from thick, spongy white bread. He remembered the slow infiltration of American chains — Shakey’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut — but it wasn’t until that Italy trip that he saw his future. A decade later, when he left his research job, he returned to Italy — not to apprentice at a pizzeria, which is standard for Japanese learning foreign cuisines, but to eat and observe and absorb as much of the culture as possible.

“What I learned is that pizza is part of everyday life in Italy — it’s not special. I knew I couldn’t make the same pizza for Japanese. Why learn from a famous pizzaiolo in Naples if I can’t duplicate the same pizza in Tokyo?” he says.

In 1995, he opened Savoy, just across the street from Seirinkan today. “When I opened, my customers didn’t know what pizza was, so I had time to experiment.” The reaction wasn’t exactly overwhelming: Kids thought the pizza was too bitter, while their parents wondered aloud how Kakinuma would ever survive serving just two kinds of pizza. But he persisted, and people caught on.

He opened Seirinkan in 2007, but Savoy is still an institution in Tokyo, with a handful of branches across the city where many of the cities’ best pizzaioli mastered the craft — including Tsubasa Tamaki.

But Kakinuma wasn’t interested in teaching pizza- making — he was only interested in doing his own thing. That meant building a pizzeria driven not by an Italian aesthetic but by his love of music — above all, the Beatles. You’ll find Beatles tchotchkes scattered throughout Seirinkan, a striking portrait of the band above the espresso machine, and an all-Beatles soundtrack pumping through the speakers in an infinite loop. “Look around. There’s no Italian stuff on the walls. We don’t say buona sera and ciao to our customers. It’s not Neapolitan pizza. It’s Kakinuma pizza.”

I’m here with my friend Shinji Nohara, a guy whom I like to call the stomach of Tokyo — a man so knowledgeable about the city’s sprawling culinary scene that people like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have employed his services. “I’ve eaten at Seirinkan probably 200 times since it opened. I’ve never seen anyone else besides Kakinuma touch the pizza,” he says. Shinji calls him the godfather of Japan’s pizza culture, the one who showed this country how special pizza can be when made by a master.

The master’s pizza menu is two items long: marinara and margherita, both still priced as they were in 1995 (1,500 yen, about $14). His prep station is nearly as Spartan as the menu: a bowl of crushed tomatoes, a colander of torn mozzarella, a canister of olive oil, and little else. Shinji and I order one of each and watch as Kakinuma builds both as if they’ll be the last pizzas he ever makes. What emerges from the oven are works of enormous beauty — small, swollen-crust pizzas with bubbling centers and a smoky perfume. Each bite feels like the first time you tasted real pizza.

Considering the naked brilliance of the pizza, and Japan’s general passion for first-rate ingredients, I expect Kakinuma to tell me that he’s working with magical stuff — tomatoes sourced from the belly of Vesuvius, mozzarella made from unicorn’s milk. Instead, he downplays everything in his pantry, including “the most basic olive oil you can find in Italy,” “cheese you could find in a Naples supermarket,” and tomatoes from Italy, but not San Marzano. He does use Japanese flour, which he proofs for 72 hours, giving the dough its yeasty character. But everything else that makes this pizza so special comes from years of finely tuned craftsmanship. Just as sushi is about rice, not fish, “Pizza is about the dough,” says Kakinuma. “If you do it right, you don’t need much on top.”

Seirinkan is open 365 days a year for lunch and dinner, and Kakinuma makes every single pizza himself. When I ask him if he ever gets bored of making pizza, he barely understands the question. “Of course not. Pizza changes every day,” he says. “I’ve never made the same pizza twice.”

When I ask him what it would take to close the place for the night, he doesn’t hesitate. “Paul McCartney.”

W hy is it that the Japanese are so damn good at making pizza? It’s a question I’ve been asking for years of anyone who will talk to me. I’ve heard a dozen different answers — everything from their sense of hospitality to their ability to work in confined spaces to the properties of Japanese water. But none of those properly explain the pizza phenomenon.

If there’s a one-word response to the question, it’s this: shokunin. A shokunin is an artisan who dedicates his or her life to the pursuit of a single craft — forging Katana blades, sculpting ceramic sake glasses, butchering bluefin tuna. The specificity of the focus stems from a humble belief, deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, that there’s always room for improvement, that one lifetime is never enough to truly master a craft. While the rest of the world may be happy with 90 percent, a shokunin looks at life as an endless march toward 100. Over the past decade writing about Japan, I’ve met hundreds of examples of shokunin who have changed my perception about culinary ambition. An 83-year-old man in his seventh decade running a restaurant that serves nothing but blowfish. A 101-year-old coffee master who still hand-roasts beans every day. A sushi master whose main goal in life is to shrink his renowned restaurant from six seats to four.

Historically, when it comes to the kitchen, the shokunin mentality has been applied to the most traditional culinary pursuits: sushi, tempura, unagi, soba. But over the second half of the 20th century, as Japan’s economy grew, and with it, its appetite for international flavors, the same singular focus has expanded into new culinary territories: bread baking, patisserie, whiskey. In each of these pursuits, the Japanese make you wonder who is the student and who is the master.

The past few decades have seen an Italian-food fever spread steadily across Japan. You’ll find more than 6,000 Italian restaurants in Tokyo alone — and not just Italian restaurants, but Apulian restaurants and Sicilian restaurants and restaurants specializing in the Jewish-inflected specialties of the Roman kitchen. At the helm of these establishments are a number of shokunin dedicated to mastering the art of fresh pasta and handmade mozzarella.

Neapolitan-style pizza may seem like an unlikely receptacle for Japanese obsession, but it comes with all the requisites of a shokunin pursuit: a circumscribed set of ingredients, a well-defined final product, and an infinite number of variables that affect the process and demand dedication. That’s what drives the Japanese pizzamaker — that daily struggle to tame the elements that make world-class pizza-making so difficult.

When Tsubasa Tamaki started as an assistant at Savoy in 2005, he didn’t touch pizza for the first three years. Instead, he washed dishes, cleaned the dining room, and made staff meals. But he watched closely and absorbed everything from his master, Dismuke Nakamura, so that when his time came, he’d be ready.

At night, when the restaurant closed, Tamaki would stay behind and practice with the day’s leftover dough. Not just a few nights, not just a few pizzas, not just a few last attempts before slinking home to sleep, but every night, from midnight until dawn, he would work his way through dozens of pizzas. He thinned out the tomato sauce with water to keep the cost down and sprinkled leftover dough as if it were cheese, but that was enough to sharpen his technique.

Each night, he asked himself questions: What if I cook the pizza closer to the fire? What happens if I increase the temperature? What if I don’t just stretch the dough but also pinch it? He learned that conditions are always changing, so more than having a single set approach, he needed to adapt to the conditions. Whatever successes he forged in the flames were only fodder for more practice: “If I made a pizza that I thought was a 100, I’d spend hours trying to top it.”

Out of those long nights, he fashioned a style all his own — a style that he took with him from Savoy to Strada, close by in Tokyo’s Azabu Juban neighborhood, and eventually to his very own pizzeria just down the street in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, Pizza Studio Tamaki (PST), where I first tasted his pizza in early 2018. It was a taste that followed me back to my home in Barcelona, where it burned in my brain like the fire that created it. Now Tamaki owns a second PST, in Roppongi, a larger restaurant in an industrial-chic space where he can be found most nights working the oven.

From a technical standpoint, Tamaki does three things that make his pizzas stand out: First, he shapes pizzas like no one I’ve ever seen, pinching the perimeter of the dough to create irregular air bubbles that expand into pockets of blistered crunch once they hit the oven. Next, he scatters a fistful of coarse salt onto the oven floor just seconds before inserting every pizza, a trick he picked up from his days at Savoy that lends the pizza depth charges of savory, salty intensity. Finally, he nuzzles the pizza right next to the fire, a mere four inches from the flames, as close as I’ve ever seen a pizza cooked to the heat source. He also immediately adds a handful of wood chips to the flames to create a cloud of smoke that gently perfumes the pizza as it cooks.

His oven burns at a blistering 480 to 500 ̊C, aggressive even by Naples’s fiery standards. I spend hours watching Tamaki make pizzas, clocking them as they go in and come out. Almost every single pizza cooks in under a minute. He stands in front of the oven, staring into the fire like it’s the Eye of Sauron, rebuilding the bombs of his youth.

Like Kakinuma and so many of the other great ­pizzamakers in Japan, Tamaki cooks every pizza individually from start to finish. No assistant handles the pizza peel or shapes the dough or feeds the fire. Most important, there are never more than four pizzas in the oven at a time. Compare that to some of the juggernauts of the Naples scene, where four or five people work shaping and cooking pizzas, and you begin to understand why Japanese pizzas are special.

Not that Tamaki would know how pizzas in Naples are made — he’s never been. In fact, he’s never been to Italy, and he has no plans to go. Is it possible that one of the world’s best pizzaioli has never been to Italy? “I’d rather go to Spain,” he says when he sees my obvious surprise.

At first, I mistake the Italy allergy for arrogance. But the more we talk, I realize why he hasn’t been — for the same reason he prefers to eat burgers on his days off. His independence is his greatest advantage, and to eat pizza in Italy would only confuse matters for him. After all, Tamaki isn’t a Japanese imitating an Italian, he’s a shokunin doing what shokunin do: quietly pursuing perfection.

When I first float the idea of a few pizzas at En Boca, a swanky pizzeria known for its range of Japanese toppings, my friend Shinji doesn’t react well. “I don’t want tofu on my pizza,” is his succinct response. (A Japanese pizza snob? That’s how ingrained pizza culture has become in Tokyo.) But I insist, and on the last evening of our long pizza sojourn, we wander our way through the charming side streets adjacent to Yoyogi Park and toward the scent of burning wood.

From the outside, En Boca looks more like a high-end florist than a pizzeria, with twisted flora all but swallowing the triangular cement triplex. Inside, it looks more like an upmarket izakaya than an Italian restaurant: chopsticks mounted in twisted silver holders, seasonal vegetables arranged in wicker baskets like still lifes. Young Japanese women clad in Gucci and Valentino move from leafy salads to edamame to ivory coins of octopus. But make no mistake: Everyone is here for the pizza.

Novelty plays well in Japan, especially when it has Western roots, so it’s not surprising that reservations at En Boca are hard to come by. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative prime minister, was here just a few weeks ago eating with a J-pop band (perhaps the most liberal thing he’s ever done).

The menu reads like a greatest-hits list of Japanese ingredients. How would you like that pizza — slathered with white miso paste? Brushed with thickened soy sauce? Kissed with a sweet-salty slick of pulverized sesame seeds? Might I suggest cured mullet roe and salted plums on top? I can feel Shinji’s reticence harden as I have him read me the all-kanji menu.

The owner and chef, Tadashi Imai, stands behind the counter in a checkered polo, preparing for the dinner rush. Before opening the first branch of En Boca in Karuizawa in 2001 (the Tokyo branch opened in 2005), Imai was an architect, a profession that helped him reimagine the way pizza is built.

“Pizza is like architecture. You need a sturdy foundation, which is the dough. But what you build on top of it, that’s where I can show my creativity,” he says.

Indeed, he builds each pizza like a man wrestling with shape and form, dabbing on one of the four or five sauces with careful brushstrokes, layering on different tastes and textures with geometric precision.

Our first pizza arrives — one half Italian (four types of tomatoes anointed with garlic oil), the other half Japanese. The Italian side is a smart and delicious take on pizza mari­nara, but it’s the Japanese pizza that opens our eyes: a web of crunchy baby sardines cut with green onions and sansho peppercorns, a delicate dance of umami and floral, mouth-numbing spice.

The next two pizzas get even deeper into Japanese territory: a white miso base with a thicket of fresh ginger that eats three times better than it sounds, and a soy sauce–based pie with a thicket of fresh shiso leaves and lashings of sharp, spicy yuzu kosho paste. Every bite is a reminder of pizza’s more distant origins — not in the streets of 17th-century Naples, but in the cultures of ancient Greece and Persia and Egypt, where they learned to build meals by topping baked flatbreads with a variety of ingredients.

We could spend hours debating the nature of pizza, about what qualifies and what doesn’t, but honestly I find these types of food fights dreadfully boring. Pizza didn’t become the world’s most beloved food by adhering to the strict definitions of the pizza police. It has evolved and expanded as it’s traveled around the world, as individual cultures have found subtle and not-so-subtle ways of making it their own. (To the purists out there, I’ll only say that I’ve seen some very weird shit — pumpkin pear, beef tartare — put on pizzas at very famous pizzerias throughout Italy, and yet the earth keeps spinning.)

The crust doesn’t have the sweet-and-sour depth of Kakinuma’s 72-hour proofed dough nor the salty, smoky character of Tamaki’s bubbled and charged beauties. But it bakes up golden and puffy in the oven and emerges as a fine canvas for some of Japan’s biggest flavors.

Working through the pizzas, I begin to wonder if we’re eating Japanese pizza inspired by Italy, Italian pizza inflected with Japanese ingredients, or Japanese-Italian pizza inspired by a single active mind. Or something else entirely.

“So many people say pizza has to be like this or like that,” says Shinji as we step out into the Tokyo night. “Even me, and I’m Japanese! I mean, miso pizza. What are you talking about?”

We take a few more steps down the road before Shinji turns around and takes one last look at the pizzeria.

“But I’d come back.”

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Author: Mario