It’s no exaggeration to call Japanese and Italian cuisine some of New York’s most popular. Since the pandemic, the number of top sushi restaurants and expensive omakase menus, rustic pasta joints and modern Italian steakhouses continues to proliferate. There is one cuisine, however, that is having a unique moment in New York like never before: Itameshi, the Japanese version of Italian cuisine.
In Nolita, Kimika has been the hottest itameshi champion since making her debut on Kenmare Street near the Bowery a year ago. The menu ranges from crispy panko-crusted eggplant katsu to bomboloncini, a playful combination that combines fried Italian donuts with mochi, Nutella, toasted sesame and hazelnuts.
“Japan is a lot like New York: there are no rules because everything you do in Japan automatically becomes Japanese. As soon as it’s accepted, people don’t question it anymore,” says Ivan Orkin, who revolutionized Tokyo’s ramen culture by adding roasted tomatoes to it, among other tricks. “In America, you can’t just put something on the menu without saying where it came from or explaining it or why you made it. If you don’t, people get angry or confused. But in Japan, they don’t care. Is it good? So that’s great.
“In Japan, making mentaiko spaghetti isn’t even Italian. You mostly find this dish in a kissaten, like an old-fashioned cafe,” says Orkin. “But one of the things that attracts cooks like me to Japan first and foremost is tradition and ritual and doing one thing really, really well. I love eating Italian food in Tokyo. They’re serious about it.
Indeed, New York has its own kissaten in the Davelle on the Lower East Side, where a hearty brunch reminiscent of what you could find on the hit show Midnight Diner includes bowls of Neapolitan spaghetti, mentai spaghetti and plain spaghetti. Usually, itameshi dishes make a unique appearance on menus: there’s dried mushroom ramen with roasted pancetta, porcini butter, truffle oil, fried shallots and Parmesan cheese with Jun-Men from Chelsea, which is basically carbonara ramen topped with a dollop of uni. At Niche on the Lower East Side, which is temporarily closed, there was a chile mushroom tomato maze. There’s also Tenho’s spicy tonkotsu tomato ramen with bacon, basil sauce and parmesan cheese at Murray Hill. It’s rare to find a full itameshi meal, even in a place that isn’t itameshi-specific, like with 15 East at Toqueville’s angel hair uni carbonara and its silky sesame milk mineoka panna cotta with kumquat.
So, while Kimika is not the city’s first itameshi outpost, it is currently the city’s most important tribute to itameshi. “Right now,” says chef Christine Lau, “itameshi makes sense because it’s equal parts seasonal ingredients, comfort food and familiar in some way, but also something that surprises because of the way the two cultures blend together.”
Literally meaning “casual Italian dining” in Japanese, the kitchen that offers a Japanese reimagining of Italian cuisine has been around for decades. It’s often called a “fusion” or a “mashup” of “polar opposites,” but those monikers sound more like the Frankenstinian artifice of sushi burritos or birria ramen.
Italian and Japanese interculturality goes much further than that. In 1582, the Tenshō Embassy became the first official Japanese visitor to Europe, with the ultimate goal of seeing Rome and meeting the pope (they ended up meeting two popes). In modern times, think Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, set in Nagasaki, or Mario Segale, the suspender-wearing Italian Nintendo proprietor who inspired the eponymous video game plumber. In this century, Japan strikingly embraced espresso and pizza culture and began to welcome ingredients like garlic and tomato into its pantheon of ramen.
“Just because something is a comfort kitchen doesn’t mean it lacks cosmopolitanism. Or vice versa: Just because you’ve elevated comfort food doesn’t necessarily mean it loses its connection to home cooking or personal memory,” says Smithsonian food historian Ashley Rose Young. “Itameshi is a fantastic combination, and we know that because it already exists in the culture with dishes like ramen that could become Italian with just a little twist.”
She adds that this has been a long time coming: “Trade is often what brings cultures together. With Italy and Japan, it goes back to the 1500s, so it was kind of destined to happen.
Both palates embrace an almost microscopic regionalism and regulate exacting standards on ingredients and technique, while maintaining the high regard of global visitors (not the least of whom are Michelin inspectors) with a largely likable flavor profile, which its goal either umami or gusto. The first restaurants of both cuisines in America were both in New York – Caffé Moretti, on Manhattan’s Cedar Street in the 1850s, where diners didn’t know how to eat spaghetti, and a Japanese restaurant on James Street then risky to Manhattan, whose name is lost to time after it opened in 1889 and quickly closed despite a five-star review in Harper’s Weekly.
Not that itameshi is a cuisine without skeptics. ‘I wouldn’t have ordered that,’ says Andrew Doro, perhaps New York’s most traveling tongue who blogs about the dishes he’s eaten from at least 145 countries in the city, over a bowl of Tenho tomato ramen. “My fear was that it would be overwhelming, heavier, like marinara ramen. But it’s actually, surprisingly, beautifully balanced. It’s the best of both countries, but it’s more Japanese.
Where other chefs have only dipped their toes in itameshi waters, Lau caused a stir with a more festive cannonball approach at Kimika, which straddles Chinatown and Little Italy on Kenmare Street. His menu is a dizzying lesson that these cuisines rhyme with, elevating with both lyrical play in poetry at ease in both haiku and sonnet. It tastes like the trio of adventure, discovery and traveler romance.
The menu starts with clever adaptations like seaweed breadsticks and beans in salt (playful versions of breadsticks and edamame) before moving on to ozoni tortellini with prawns and prosciutto (a Japanese New Year’s soup) with mochi. and naruto, then eggplant katsu and soy. buttery bigoli, then popping with four-egg spaghetti and crescendo with the crowd-pleaser of rice cake lasagna (no matter what a table orders, Lau saves this dish for last). In a plot: Lau is neither Italian nor Japanese. She was born in Oakland to a family of immigrants from Hong Kong.
In a way, this heritage makes Lau itameshi the perfect performer, as Italian and Japanese cuisine are derivative cousins of Chinese cuisine, which may not have invented pasta but certainly accelerated its popularity. worldwide after welcoming Marco Polo. Ramen is actually part of chūka, a whole class of Japanese versions of Chinese cuisine – and a dish that’s a generation younger than pizza.
“There’s a lot of influence in Kimika’s food that comes from Chinese cuisine. It’s partly because I’m a Chinese American. Instead of walking away from the influence of Chinese cuisine on the menu – at first I probably hid it a bit more – now I just talk about it,” says Lau. “Itameshi is not something new. It’s historical. It’s become inherent even though this isn’t the food everyone’s grandma used to make. I’m no historian at all, but I’m trying to highlight these natural hangouts that I’ve tasted on my travels. I am just a curator.I put a relationship that exists on the customers plate.
Dessert helps, as always. Kimika’s yuenyeung tiramisu features espresso jellies in genmaicha cream with layers of espresso-soaked sponge cake sprinkled with cocoa kinako. Diners can wash it down with Caffé Kodawari, a grappa-based cocktail with amaro cio ciaro, house-brewed coffee cordial, five spices and espresso kodawari. The final flavor of the most complete itameshi experience in town is best left to be, say, smooth.