By Eleonora Baldwin
aking foreign cuisine for granted in Rome is still a bad idea. Though ethnic restaurants and a range of international foods have made sweeping inroads in most European cities, Italy is something of a holdout, still largely favoring its own cooking and tends to stock its own ingredients.
Take Japanese food. Though sushi is now available at most neighborhood supermarket usually displayed between the pre-boiled spinach and the vacuum packed slices of pink Parma ham, and maki and wasabi have become highly popular there's still no telling just what you're getting.
Enter the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (commonly known as JRO). Created in 2008, the Japanese-run JRO awards quality control certificates to restaurants that request its approval. The sought-after JRO seal is a guarantee of top-flight ingredients, the use of quality techniques, as well as a confirmation that recipes have been correctly prepared in accordance with traditional methods.
Rome has a handful of JRO-approved restaurants, run and managed by native Japanese staff with sushi bars manned by trained chefs and pro sushi-men.
I recently had an informal chat with a Rome sushi chef, who gave me a better idea what to look out for (the chef preferred to remain anonymous). As I nibbled on perfectly carved slivers of unaghi and warm pods of salted edamame, he explained that the Japanese define their cuisine as Sappari: clean, orderly, light. Next came a number of basic tips, most focused on sushi and sashimi.
Take rice, for example. As you eat a sushi roll, ask yourself if the rolls are compact. Is the rice well cooked, the grains glued together by the natural starch, as they should be, or do they fall apart in your mouth, breaking away from the fish? Does the rice taste and smell good? Is the seasoning sufficient? Is it balanced between sweet and sour? Is the seafood filling-to-rice ratio proportionate? Is the size the proper fit for a mouthful?
Some of the answers might make or break you favorite sushi bar.
Fish. The obvious first question is, "Is it fresh?" But that's not it at all. The correct question is, "Has it been blast-frozen for 24 hours before being thawed and then served, in compliance with the law?" Raw fish often contains dangerous parasites, which only freezing can cleanse.
Then comes handling and cutting, not an art but a profession that chefs and sushi-men master over a period of years. They learn fish anatomy, how to differentiate between marine species, as well as the specifics of territory and seasonality. They're also taught blade handling, traditional flavor combinations, and the artistic nuances of presentation.
Analyze colors: they should be bright and luminous. Serving temperature should be crisp but not chilled. Texture should be supple and oily. The fish should melt in your mouth.
Then there's flavor. The aroma and flavor of the seafood should be a balance of saline and marine elements, with condiments providing an airy counterbalance of pungency and perfume.
Ancient rules apply to the number of slices, bowls, colors, flavors, shapes and the asymmetrical disposition of the elements. Beauty is a very important co-star.
My chef reminded me that eating sushi and sashimi is a ritual before being a pleasure, which leads me to where you can "enjoy" that ritual in Rome. Most websites are in Italian, but basic menu items and address details are more than decipherable.
Taki This JRO-approved restaurant in Prati is rated by natives as the best and most authentic Japanese restaurant in Rome. Sushi and sashimi are prepared by expert sushi-men, and the stellar cooked dishes include succulent yakitori, beef shioyaki, and teriyaki preparations. Don't forego the miso and yakiudon starters, either. And save room for desserts such as daifuku (rice and red bean curd) and the ginger gelato. Tea ceremony with elegant raku pottery and magnificent matcha complete the offer. ¶ Taki. Via Marianna Dionigi, 56/60. Open daily.
Ginza Able chefs perform nightly in front of the large teppanyaki (grill) at the center of this refined Esquilino restaurant, with tables elegantly set around it. The impressive menu includes superb sushi, sashimi, tempura and udon (noodle) dishes, plus a classy wine list with Italian and French labels to boot. I often take advantage of the 15 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. ¶ Ginza. Via Emanuele Filiberto, 251. Tel. +39.06.700.5739. Open daily.
Ginza Gold Ginza's sister restaurant is nestled in a gilded corner of Via Barberini and offers three floors of über-luxury design. The striking menu offers a choice of raw and cooked traditional dishes. GG also hosts private parties with staff in traditional costume. Also available are kimono tutorials, geisha make-up demonstrations, origami, calligraphy and painting classes, and nihon buyo dance performances. See website for details. ¶ Ginza Gold. Via Barberini, 53/57. Tel. +39.06.700.5739. Open daily.
Kisso The particularity of Rome's biggest sushi-bar doesn't come in the form of the well-crafted sushi boats, the feather-light tempura or the juicy grilled meats, but the typical display of wax replicas in the glass case at the entrance. While such displays are common in Japan, I've seen some locals shy away from the "illustrated menu." It doesn't trouble ownership, since the clientele is almost entirely Japanese. ¶ Kisso. Via Firenze, 30. Tel. +39.06.4782.4677. Closed Sunday.
Yakiniku Every table at this Pigneto restaurant has its own barbecue, allowing guests to grill their own meat, seafood, and vegetables. The first of its kind in the area to offer yakiniku cuisine (the word for grilled meat), it's designed like a traditional Japanese home, with an enclosed garden, which is ideal for tea time and the "fusion" Sunday brunch buffet. There's a wide choice of Japanese beers and sake, both offered by the glass or on sale in the in-house shop. ¶ Yakiniku. Via del Pigneto, 209. Tel. +39.06.9893.7730. Open Tue.-Sat. for dinner only, Sunday noon-midnight.
Take Located in the heart of Trastevere, Take's is among Rome's best kept secrets, and one of my favorites. The Kyoto-born chef prepares a lovely selection of chirashi (rice marinade and assorted sashimi), sushi, perfectly carved sashimi, and cooked dishes like buttery grilled scallops, roasted squid, and grilled eel. ¶ Take. Viale Trastevere, 4. Tel. +39.06.581.0075. Closed Monday.
Hokkaido The affordable all-you-can-eat formula applies for both lunch and dinner. With minimal expense you can choose from a vast assortment of nighiri, uramaki, sashimi and and temaki wraps à la carte, plus a good variety of cooked specialties, including grilled sake-marinated salmon or succulent Tsukune (deep fried chicken fillet). Good wine list, which includes aromatic whites like Müller-Thurgau, whose crisp floral notes positively accompany Japanese cuisine. ¶ Hokkaido. Via Marsala, 96/c. Tel. +39.06.4550.5297. Open daily.
Harusaki: Daifuku 1 & 2 Located a few feet from each other in the Piazza Bologna area, these two all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurants seat over 300 guests and serve good sushi, sashimi and hot dishes, also offering a wide variety of traditional dishes at reasonable prices for both lunch (15) and dinner (19). ¶ Harusaki. Via Cremona, 42. Tel. +39.06.4423.6920. Open daily.
Hamasei This JRO-certified luxury Japanese restaurant was the first to open in Rome, in 1974, and has long been a trademark of the best in traditional Tokyo cuisine and refined ambiance (along with staggering prices). In the elegant tatami room, guests can sit in the traditional fashion, and enjoy a wide selection of perfectly carved sashimi, traditional sushi, and hot dishes like sukiyaki, shabu shabu (Japanese fondue in aromatic broth), and the best prawn and mixed vegetable tempura in town. The lunch menu is more affordable, with good take out bento boxes, and an impressive tasting menu, quite unusual for Roman ethnic restaurants. ¶ Hamasei. Via della Mercede, 35. Tel. +39.06.679.2134. Closed Monday
Hasekura In the heart of Monti, Hasekura is the JRO-certified dream of Japanese chef Ito Kimiji and his Italian wife Franca Palma, who in 1994 named their restaurant after a famous samurai who landed in Civitavecchia circa 1600 while on a trade mission with the Vatican. The elegant decor and traditional cuisine, which focuses on simple cooking procedures that allow quality ingredients to shine make this one of the city's best-loved Japanese restaurants, despite inflated prices. Decent sukiyaki, tempura as well as a variety of sushi and good sashimi (but no yakitori, or other griddle dishes). A word to the wise: the range of raw seafood is broader on Tuesday and Friday. ¶ Hasekura. Via dei Serpenti, 27. Closed Sunday.
Rokko Managed by a charming owner (who prefers Armani tailleurs to traditional geisha drag), Rokko presents a modest variety of very good quality sushi, and prides on serving the city's best Toro (small section of the blue fin tuna's belly whose high fat content provides more concentrated flavor). It also offers a number of very good hot dishes. The vegetable tempura and miso-based soups are notable, and all is served in a friendly, informal atmosphere. Sushi and sashimi come only at dinner. Rokko caters to celiacs with a special menu. ¶ Rokko. Passeggiata di Ripetta, 15. Tel. +39.06.322.3414. Closed Sunday.
Zen Sushi One of the few kaitenzushi restaurants in Rome a sushi-bar that serves patrons by way of a kaiten, a conveyor belt that travels eight centimeters a second and is constantly refilled with small servings of mostly sushi. Guests pick from the kaiten and the bill is drawn up counting empty plates. The decor is minimal and refined, and although the servers at the tables (there are several, besides the belt) are not all natives, the chefs are all Japanese. ¶ Zen Sushi. Via degli Scipioni, 243-243/A. Tel. +39.06.321.3420. Closed Monday and Saturday lunch.
Kyo Another kaiten belt restaurant that also boasts an entirely wooden tatami room as well as a large separate private room for exclusive events and parties. Guests can sit at the kaiten or order from the impressive à la carte menu. Sushi, sashimi and other hot dishes are available for takeout in elegantly packaged bento boxes. ¶ Kyo. Piazzale R. Ardigò, 33. Tel. +39.06.5960.3470. Open from 10:30 a.m. for tea and leisure time reading. Closed Monday
Sushisen Delightful sushi rolls (nigiri, maki, onigiri and so on) are the speciality at this JRO-approved restaurant in Ostiense. The rooms are luminous and elegant, but the atmosphere is never stiff, instead relaxing. The friendly all-Japanese staff helps, providing gracious explanations and etiquette suggestions, with a smile. ¶ Sushisen Via G. Giulietti, 21/a. Tel. +39.06.575.6945. Closed Monday.
Sakura This Via Veneto establishment focuses on detail and presentation, providing guests with innovative modern Japanese cuisine. I come for the wide selection of rare gunkan, micro-hosomaki morsels, temakis and delightful spicy chirachi platters (rice patties upon which the raw fish is seasoned with soy sauce, wasabi, yuzu, and fiery kimuchi no moto sauce). Nice teppanyaki and skewers of grilled meats, myriad udon noodle dishes and an impressive sake list. Save room for dessert. ¶ Sakura. Piazza di Porta Pia, 122/123. Tel. +39.06.4425.4329. Open daily.
Doozo More than just a JRO-licensed restaurant, Doozo is a Japanese microcosm that revolves around its internal culture. There are photo and art exhibits, with a noteworthy library of interesting titles on shelves and on tables, sharing space with food. Everywhere is a multitude of original Japanese products for sale. Young chef Kazuhiko Endo's specials are a mix of the traditional and innovative, including fresh tofu antipasto, salmon and tuna sushi nighiri rolls topped with a dollop of Technicolor flying fish eggs, vegetarian maki dotted with sesame, and perfectly chilled Soba noodles with sweet soy sauce. It's nice to end a meal with the unique and rare green Matcha tea, or spend the afternoon in the perfectly manicured Zen garden, before a steaming bowl of Ban Cha. ¶ Doozo. Via Palermo, 51/53. Tel. +39.06.481.5655. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Yoshi Yoshi is the only place that serves Gin Dara (glazed black cod). It also has an intelligent wine list, elegant interiors, and a convenient delivery service. But it's most intriguing (and somewhat disturbing) feature is Nyotaimori, or "body sushi," in which sushi comes served on the naked body of a woman, a practice said to originate in the 17th-century for the benefit of Japanese high society. ¶ Yoshi. Via Ostiense, 64. Tel. +39.06.574.5227. Open daily.
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