In 2008, Eataly Japan opened in a large department store in Daikanyama, Tokyo. There were many surprises in this opening: Why did Tokyo get Turin's great wine and food trendsetter well before New York, where Eataly opened only this year? But the long-standing Japan-Italy heated love affair was long ready for this cultural explosion.
"Itameshi" or "Italian food" has been topping the popularity charts in Japan for decades. Spaghetti has been on the menus of cafes in Japan since the 1920s. Red-sauce Italian was popularized first by Italian-American GIs during the occupation, but a wider acquaintance with Italian food had to wait until the 1990s, when demise of French food as the elite European draw for diners meant the rise of Italian. With the 1991 collapse of Asian economies, white-tablecloth restaurants with tall-toqued chefs trained in France at Bocuse or Taillevent—with prices as high as the toques—were no longer the standard bearers for fancy food. And Japanese chefs who'd trained in France were now shifting their palates and ingredients to Italy. The food was seen as "friendly, cheap, and cheerful" compared to the hauteur and formality of French food.
The older Japanese waxed nostalgic as they supped on simple food like panzanella and thought about their grandmothers' miso soup.
With a dream grant, I went to Italy over a two-year period to follow Japanese culinary tourists in Italy. In Bologna, some of these travelers and I enrolled in a cooking school where we rolled up our sleeves to learn to knead dough for pasta and bread. In Siena we ate the food of Catherine de Medici, and near Pisa we stayed at an agriturismo which had been established for Japanese visitors. We met many Japanese chefs. One restaurateur in Bologna said that the best Italian restaurants have a Japanese chef in the kitchen.
Enjoying Italy in the moment, the visitors also saw a long-gone Japan there: "Italy is what we were and still should be: mama's cooking, family farms, and high art," one person told me. The older Japanese waxed nostalgic as they supped on simple food like panzanella and thought about their grandmothers' miso soup; the younger ones tried edgy food combinations and sought fashion and cool cafes. Everyone was happy with the wines— except for the grumpy husband of one passionate traveler who wanted only Japanese beer.
In Japan, Italian food may use local ingredients: flying fish roe might appear on angel hair pasta; sesame oil, yuzu citron, and possibly shredded myoga (a gingerish garnish) might top an insalata verde. Yet respect for Italian tradition has also permeated Japanese tastes. Tokyo's red-white-and-green-decorated Eataly has been a draw because of its uncompromising insistence on la vera cucina italiana. Trendy, orthodox, and amusing, Italian food is the way we were and most definitely the way we are in Japan.
More photos from Japan's Eataly: