Italian is the most popular international cuisine in Japan, which is confirmed by the country’s high quality Italian restaurants. Kyoto is no exception; here you’ll find a great range of Italian food, from authentic pizzerias to innovative Japanese-Italian fusion and Michelin-star haute cuisine.
Italian Stephani Ernesto, chef at Aroma di Kyoto, is originally from Padua, and has had experience working in Italian restaurants in Japan for more than 20 years. He moved from Tokyo to Kyoto to open Aroma in 2018. Ernesto spoke to Kyoto-based writer Martha Knauf about the history of Italian food in Japan. “The Japanese travel to Italy a lot, which began after World War II. They like the fashion, the cars, and they know a lot about Italian food. They started making Italian cookbooks, and then opening their own restaurants.”
The first Italian restaurant opened in Japan in the late 19th century, and spaghetti became a popular dish at cafés in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Italian food really hit it big. French haute cuisine had previously dominated the restaurant scene in Japan, but when the economy crashed in 1991, Italian took its place. Japanese chefs began training in Italy, bringing techniques home to a country in need of a less expensive and more casual cuisine.
Aroma di Kyoto is a five-minute walk from Higashiyama Station in the Okazaki area of Northern Higashiyama, which is home to two of Kyoto’s best art museums, lovely parks, and Heian-jingu, a major shrine. Ernesto is a warm and welcoming host, and chats with his customers while overseeing the kitchen. He says of his restaurant, “When you’re here, you’re home, there’s no difference”. The restaurant’s specialty is pinsa (a flatbread-like pizza from Rome). Lighter than standard Neapolitan pizza, the dough is comprised of 70 percent water and must rise for three days. The comfortable yet classy interior features a grand piano; throughout the year, special performances featuring Italian-style music are held here.
Fabio Palmieri, another member of Kyoto’s Italian community, owns Vinaino, a cosy spot just five minutes from Kawaramachi Station, tucked away in one of Kyoto’s many hidden alleyways. It’s a good idea to make a reservation since Vinaino only seats about 10 people at a time on its second floor, which is styled to look like a Tuscan osteria. There’s also a standing bar on the first floor. The owner is from Florence – which happens to be the sister city of Kyoto – and pays homage to his hometown with a menu specialising in Florentine cuisine, featuring dishes simply seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs. Meats are imported from Italy and the pasta is made daily. A variety of appetisers and meat dishes complete the menu. The wine list offers an extensive selection of Tuscan wines.
Pizzeria Lugara is owned by an Italian and Japanese couple who create a homey atmosphere in their small restaurant, which serves authentic Neapolitan pizza. The pizzeria is within walking distance of the famous bamboo forest in Arashiyama, one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist spots. The menu features 12 wood-fired thin crust pizzas with gourmet combinations such as pistachio sauce topped with mortadella, mozzarella and pistachios. If you’re after something other than pizza, there’s also sweet or savoury panzerotti (fried turnovers), lasagne, green salad and a selection of desserts. Japanese craft beer is served on tap along with a selection of international bottled beers and a handful of wine options. Reservations aren’t accepted; expect a line during busy hours. Takeaway is available.
Pizzeria Da Ciro is a five-minute walk from the famous Philosopher’s Path near Ginkaku-ji Temple in Northern Higashiyama. The Japanese owner and chef trained in Naples for two years to learn the tricks of the trade, and it shows. The chef keeps things simple with a menu featuring 12 wood-fired pizzas with various toppings, a ham and mozzarella calzone, and a dessert pizza smothered in Nutella. A selection of Italian wine and beer is available, and the interior is cosy and casual, with red checked tablecloths on the tables and a mural of Naples on the wall. Takeout is available.
Yuki Kamada, who owns Da Yuki, which is walking distance from Heian-jingu, trained in a Neapolitan pizzeria after attending culinary school in Japan. The menu here features classic Neapolitan thin-crust pizza made from ingredients imported from Italy. Many pizza options – and one calzone – are on offer, as well as an assortment of appetisers featuring Italian meat and cheese. Two main dishes, roast sausage and steak, are served at dinner only, while at lunchtime you can buy authentic paninis. Marrandino buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy is sold both in-house and online. Reservations are encouraged, and takeaway is also available.
This pizzeria, which is located just outside Higashiyama Station, reflects the Japanese owner-chef’s time training in Naples in both its menu and the homey Italian decor. The pizza kiln and 80 percent of the ingredients used, including the pizza flour, are imported from Italy. On the menu are more than 30 types of pizza as well as pizza fritta (a pizza folded in half and deep fried). Arancini, (fried rice balls) – a Neapolitan pizzeria specialty – are also sold, while marinated octopus and caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella round out the menu. A selection of Italian beer and wine is available, and they also organise takeaways.
It’s a one-man show at this trattoria five minutes from the popular Imperial Palace, where the owner plays the roles of sole cook, waiter and host himself. A full menu is on offer with options that would make any Italian feel at home. A customer favourite is the antipasto plate featuring bruschetta, meatballs, caprese salad and mortadella loaf. Pizza, pasta dishes and hearty mains such as braised beef are all made with ingredients imported from Italy. There’s even tiramisu and homemade cannoli – a rare find in Japan – for dessert, and an extensive wine list. With only two tables and four counter seats, it’s an intimate affair, made even more so by the friendly Yuki, who enjoys chatting with his customers throughout the meal. Reservations are recommended.
A short walk from shopping district Shijo-Karasuma, this upscale restaurant has a generous four-course lunch menu for ¥3,500 (£24) and an à la carte dinner menu, with appetisers followed by pasta and risotto. But it’s the meat-centric mains that are the star of the show; some, like the grilled miso marinated pork, showcase Japanese flavours. The menu features pesticide-free seasonal vegetables from nearby Ohara, a rural mountain town. Dessert includes Italian favourites gelato and tiramisu, or a tea-flavoured creme brûlée. Cenetta Barba specialises in homemade seasonal fruit wine, such as Italian limoncello and Japanese plum wine, as well as the more unusual yuzucello and apple sake. Reservations are recommended.
A short walk from Nijo Castle in central Kyoto, this upscale restaurant offers three different set menus for lunch. The chef – who trained at restaurants in France and Italy – creates unique French-influenced Italian cuisine, made with Kyoto ingredients. Choose from an eight- or 10-dish course, with prices ranging from ¥5,000-8,500 (£35-59). Orto – which means vegetable garden in Italian – features fresh, seasonal vegetables from Kyoto Prefecture on the menu, while all of the herbs and the wheatgrass served here are grown in the kitchen garden. An impressive selection of 600 bottles of French, Italian and natural wine is available, all of which have been chosen by a sommelier. The interior is calm and elegant, accented with light wood, white walls and recessed lighting. Reservations are required; special dietary needs, including vegan options, can be arranged for if the restaurant is notified three days prior.
This upscale Michelin-star restaurant is located at the south entrance to the Imperial Palace grounds. It’s named after the chef-owner’s former teacher in Tuscany, where he studied the art of Italian cooking. A simple maple leaf logo represents a symbol of Hiroshima, the owner’s hometown. The menu is comprised of just one set menu that changes seasonally. The chef strives to highlight the best that each season has to offer by showcasing different ingredients throughout the year, with vegetables sourced from nearby Ohara. He tinkers with Italian flavours by adding fermented vegetables and fish sauce to create unusual combinations. Specialties include scallop terrine and foie gras. The interior is understated and peaceful, with both Japanese and Western design influence. There’s a sommelier on staff and a wine cellar. Reservations are encouraged.
Pizza Salvatore Cuomo is one of many restaurants owned by Salvatore Cuomo, a Japanese-Italian celebrity chef. Cuomo began his career as an Italian restaurateur and media personality when he came to Japan to take over his father’s restaurant, and has been credited with making Neapolitan pizza popular in Japan and throughout Asia. The lunch buffet here is one of the best deals in the city: for only ¥1,500 (£10.50), you can have unlimited woodfired pizza and an assortment of pastas, salads, side dishes, desserts (including a chocolate fountain) and drinks. Dinner features a more extensive menu. There’s outdoor seating – a rarity in Japan – along the Takase River, a thin, scenic canal that runs through much of central Kyoto. Cuomo also has a more upscale restaurant in Kyoto, The Kitchen Salvatore Cuomo Kyoto, which is located in Kyoto Station offering a priceless view of Kyoto Tower.