Ristorante da Nino, Nogizaka
Antonino Lentini is sometimes described as the "Sicilian ambassador to Tokyo," demonstrating the high regard in which he is held by anyone who has had the pleasure of dining at his upscale Italian restaurant. Ristorante da Nino, named after the chef himself, is beyond a doubt the finest Sicilian—if not the finest Italian—restaurant in Tokyo.
Nino originally came to Japan just to cook at an Italian food fair, but his talents immediately caught the interest of local restauranteurs, and he went on to manage some of Ginza’s best Italian restaurants. Nino is one of the nicest, most modest and welcoming individuals you could meet. He opened Ristorante da Nino in 2000, with seating for 30 people in a cozy atmosphere. The following year he expanded the restaurant and added an open kitchen, where most nights you will find him conducting the other chefs like a maestro during a symphony.
Located near Tokyo Midtown and Nogizaka Station, Nino’s (as many regulars call it) expertly blends an upscale setting with the friendliness of a local Italian eatery. All of the walls are adorned with artwork imported from Sicily, and the plates and silverware used are handmade by local artisans from Nino’s home village, creating an exciting and colorful backdrop to the mouthwatering fare we were about to enjoy.
In addition to its à la carte menu, Nino’s also offers four different dinner courses, ranging in price from ¥8,000 to ¥18,000 per person. We went for the Sicilian course (¥13,000), which started with Nino’s special hors d’oeuvre. The dish was a delight, featuring tuna with pistachio breadcrumbs, accompanied with orange and garnished with gold leaf. Add to this tender Hokkaido crab, breadcrumbed sardine and caponata (stewed vegetables), couscous, and seafood jelly topped with caviar, and it was almost a meal in itself. I was surprised that such varying flavors were all in perfect harmony with each other, and it made me even more excited about the other dishes to come.
Next in the course was the seafood risotto, which was truly unique. The asparagus and creamy cheese formed the perfect contrast to the dried tuna roe, but the real gem of this dish was the unbelievably fresh and delicious uni (sea urchin). Usually I do not like sea urchin, but this was so fresh and creamy that it changed my opinion of the ingredient forever. I cannot recommend the dish highly enough.
Next came the pasta: spaccatelle with Lobster in a tomato cream sauce. Spaccatelle noodles are thick strands, which I thought closely resembled udon. The flavor of the sauce was rich and creamy, and the lobster sweet and tender.
After the first three courses, I really thought I could not possibly eat another morsel…that is, until the crescendo of the meal came to our table. This was a steak in the Italian style, consisting of lean and tender meat. The Marsala cream sauce whispered flavors of the Italian south like waves lapping along one of the many picturesque harbors, and the accompanying stuffed tomatoes, fresh basil, thyme, pumpkin and lentils all worked together to invoke the spirit of a truly Italian kitchen. On the recommendation of the house sommelier, we washed this down with a glass of Tacaldalmerita 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was a perfect complement. Incidentally, Nino stocks a very rare selection of wines rarely seen outside of Sicily, so there is something to discover for all diecerning Italian wine buffs.
Last but not least was dessert, a (thankfully) light and creamy pudding accompanied with a merengue and a glazed fruit sauce. It was the perfect cap to a wonderful evening of delicious and indulgent Sicilian fare.
After coffee it was time to waddle toward the door. By this point the restaurant had filled up considerably to about 70 percent capacity (and this was a Monday). I was already convinced that Nino’s is an exceptional restaurant on all levels, but one last glance around the room on the way out confirmed this; on one side the Japan national soccer manager Alberto Zaccheroni was having dinner with one of his staff, and on the other side of the room the Italian ambassador was entertaining some businessmen. Clearly, diners at Nino’s are in good company.
Address: 1-15-19 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Open: Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-10:30 p.m.; closed Sun (note that only children over ten years old are allowed in the restaurant)
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