Japanese-Italian cuisine finds its biggest scene yet in New York at Kimika



It is no exaggeration to name some of the most popular Japanese and Italian dishes in New York City. Since the pandemic, the number of top sushi restaurants and menus from pricey omakase to rustic pasta joints and modern Italian steakhouses has continued to proliferate. There is one cuisine, however, that has a unique New York moment like never before: Itameshi, the Japanese version of Italian cuisine.

In Nolita, Kimika has been itameshi’s most prominent champion since his debut on Kenmare Street near Bowery a year ago. The menu ranges from katsu to crispy eggplant in a panko crust to bomboloncini, a playful combination that combines fried Italian donuts with mochi with 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 is accepted, people don’t question it, ”says Ivan Orkin, who celebrates upset ramen culture in Tokyo by adding, among other tips, roasted tomatoes. “In America, you can’t just put something on the menu without saying where it came from or explaining it or why you did it. If you don’t, people get pissed off or confused. But in Japan, they don’t care. Is it good? Then it’s awesome.

“In Japan, making mentaiko spaghetti is not 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 in the first place is tradition and ritual and doing a really, really good thing. I love to eat Italian food in Tokyo. They are really serious about it.

Indeed, New York has its own kissaten on the Lower East Side. Davelle, where a cozy brunch is reminiscent of what could be found on the hit show Midnight dinner includes bowls of Neapolitan spaghetti, mentai spaghetti and plain spaghetti. Usually, itameshi dishes make a unique appearance on menus: there’s a dried mushroom ramen with roasted pancetta, porcini butter, truffle oil, fried shallots and Parmesan cheese at Chelsea’s Jun-Men. which is essentially a carbonara ramen topped with a dollop of uni. At Niche on the Lower East Side, which is temporarily closed, there was a maze of Chilean mushroom tomatoes. There’s also Tenho’s Spicy Tomato Tonkotsu Ramen with Bacon, Basil Sauce, and Parmesan at Murray Hill. It is rare to find a full itameshi meal, even in a place that is not specific to itameshi, like the 15 East with the angel-haired uni carbonara of Toqueville and its silky panna cotta with milk mineoka. sesame and kumquat.

So, although Kimika is not the city’s first itameshi outpost, it is currently the city’s most important tribute to itameshi. “Right now,” explains chef Christine Lau, “itameshi makes sense because it is about equal parts seasonal ingredients, comfort food and familiar in a way, but also something that surprises. by the way the two cultures blend together. ”

Literally meaning “casual Italian meal” in Japanese, the cuisine that offers a Japanese reinvention of Italian cuisine has been around for decades. It is often called a “fusion” Where “to crush“of “Polar opposites” but these nicknames are more like the Frankenstinian artifice of sushi burritos Where birria ramen.

Soy butter bigoli are one of Kimika’s few pasta dishes.
Evan Sung / Kimika

An all-steel pot filled with lasagna made from rice cakes.

Crispy rice cake lasagna.
Evan Sung / Kimika

Italian and Japanese interculturality goes much further than that. In 1582, the Tenshō Embassy became the first official Japanese visitors to Europe, with the ultimate goal of seeing Rome and meeting the Pope (they ended up meeting two Popes). In modern times, think of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly from 1904, which takes place in Nagasaki, or Mario segale, the Italian owner wearing Nintendo suspenders that inspired the eponymous video game plumber. This century, Japan has made a striking embrace of Espresso and Pizza culture and began to welcome ingredients like Garlic and tomato in its ramen pantheon.

“Just because something is comfort food doesn’t mean it lacks cosmopolitanism. Or vice versa: just because you brought up comfort food doesn’t necessarily mean it loses its connection with home cooking or personal memory, ”explains Ashley Rose Young, food historian at the Smithsonian. “Itameshi is a fantastic combination, and we know that because it already exists in the culture with dishes like ramen that could go Italian with just a little touch.”

She adds that it 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 sort of destined to happen. “

Both palates embrace an almost microscopic regionalism and regulate rigorous standards on ingredients and technique, while maintaining the high regard of world visitors (the least of whom are Michelin inspectors) with a largely sympathetic flavor profile, whether its focus is umami or gusto. America’s first two-cuisine restaurants were both in New York – Cafe Moretti, on Cedar Street in Manhattan in the 1850s, where diners weren’t sure how to eat spaghetti, and a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan’s then risky James Street, whose name is lost in time after it opened in 1889 and quick closing despite receiving a five-star review in Harper’s Weekly.

Not that itameshi is a cuisine without skeptics. “I wouldn’t have ordered this,” says Andrew Doro, perhaps New York’s most traveled language who blogs about the dishes he ate in at least 145 countries in the city, over a bowl of Tenho’s 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.

A yellow fin tuna tartare stuffed in a black pot and herbs.

Yellow fin tuna tartare at Kimika.
Evan Sung / Kimika

Where other chefs have only dipped their toes in itameshi waters, Lau has caused a stir with a more festive cannonball take on Kimika, which straddles Chinatown and Little Italy on Kenmare Street. His menu is a dizzying lesson that these kitchens rhyme, raising both lyrical games in a poetry at ease both haiku and sonnet. It sounds like the trio of adventure, discovery and romance of travelers.

The menu starts with clever adaptations like grissini with seaweed and beans in salt (playful catches of breadsticks and edamame) before moving on to ozoni tortellini with shrimp and prosciutto (a Japanese New Year’s soup) with mochi and naruto, then eggplant katsu and soy butter bigoli, then sautéing with four egg spaghetti and crescendo with the distant pleasure of rice cake lasagna (no matter what a table orders, Lau keeps this dish for the end). In a twist: Lau is neither Italian nor Japanese. She was born in Oakland to an immigrant family from Hong Kong.

A female chef dressed in a white shirt and gray apron, standing in front of a red background.

Christina Lau is Kimika’s chef.

In a way, this heritage makes Lau itameshi the ideal performer, as Italian cuisine and Japanese cuisine are cousins ​​of Chinese cuisine, which might not have invented the pasta but certainly accelerated its worldwide popularity after welcoming Marco Polo. Ramen is indeed part of chÅ«ka, a whole class of Japanese recipes on Chinese food – and a dish that’s a generation younger than pizza.

“There is a lot of influence in the food at Kimika that comes from Chinese food. This is partly because I am chinese american. Instead of turning away from the influence of Chinese food on the menu – at first I probably hid it a bit more – now I don’t talk about it anymore, ”Lau says. “Itameshi is not something new. It’s historic. It has become inherent even though it is not everyone’s grandmother’s food. I am by no means a historian, but I try to highlight these natural meeting points that I have tasted during my travels. I am only a conservative. I put a relationship that exists on a plate for customers.

Dessert helps, as always. Kimika’s tiramisu yuenyeung features espresso jellies in a genmaicha cream with layers of lady finger sponge cake soaked in espresso and sprinkled with cocoa kinako. Diners can wash it down with Caffé Kodawari, a grappa-based cocktail with amaro cio ciaro, home-made coffee cordial, five spices and Kodawari espresso. It’s best if the final flavor of the city’s most complete itameshi experience is, well, smooth.


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