Japan Eats

Restaurant Review: Il Cantuccio (Shimo-Kitazawa)

In the interests of being up front with you, dear readers, I stumbled across Il Cantuccio looking for a quick bite before going to a play and had no intention of reviewing it. However, that quick bite turned into such a great experience that I quickly realized I should write it up. Here goes.

In a neighborhood packed to the gills with little, interesting eateries, the Italian restaurant Il Cantuccio took my surprise for a few reasons. First, once you get inside, it’s surprisingly big. Not chain family restaurant big, but at somewhere are fifty, it seats more people than most of the local restaurants in Shimo-Kitazawa.

The first thing you’ll notice is Il Cantuccio’s handmade feel – the entrance tot he staircase that takes you up to the second-floor premises features the usual menu and blackboard, but also a wall covered in corks – not an original move, but a time-consuming one. (And, incidentally, a cheap and attractive way to make a bulletin board for yourself if you need to.) You’ll next notice that the joint is run by trusting folks – unopened six-packs of Nastro Azzuro (Italian lager) line the steps leading to the restaurant.

The beer-on-steps works as advertising, at least on me, as I ordered one immediately upon sitting down. In the corner near our table was a woman in her 40s very slowly working on the first glass of a bottle of wine with a giant plate of raw oysters on ice in front of her as she read a book. She seemed to have her idle fingers right on the pulse of the place as everyone there seemed to have settled in for the evening.

This welcoming, relaxed atmosphere was encouraged by the casual decor – wood floors, a mid-sized wine rack in the middle of the dining room, semi-exposed ducts in the sloped ceiling, a view into the bustling kitchen, complete with stone pizza oven and voluble young pizza-maker.  House wines, which range from a very reasonable 300 yen per glass, are written on the windows, as are a few specials; unlike many restaurants in Japan, especially less-expensive ones, the lighting was bright enough to read the menu by, but no more – no glaring fluorescents overhead or ill-advised halogen spots lighting your food up like Jimmy Page going into an extended solo. I honestly can’t remember what the music was, which is a good sign as it must have matched the surroundings – no Edo-period izakaya blasting Mariah Carey here.

The wine list was extensive, but relatively inexpensive, the cheapest bottles being under 2000 yen and carafes selling for even less. Never fear, though, the list was long enough to include both the cheap and the quite nice – all priced lower than you’d expect. The selections were, obviously, mostly Italian, but by no means exclusively so – Chilean and French offerings were also to be had.

The food was in the vein of typical Italian – some pasta, some pizzas, a bit of seafood, but was done better than average.

Thinking we were just going to fill ourselves up before settling in for the play, we ordered a quattro fromaggio pizza from the waitress, only to have the manager come by a minute later and ask if we were sure we didn’t want any kind of salad or starter – not in the “you must order more before I try to screw you on the check” tone of Parisian restaurateurs, but as a genuine question. Both the manager and the waitress were able to answer questions and make good recommendations. We went with a salad and a plate of cheeses, prosciutto, and salami.

The mixed green salad was more than generous. (A note to all restaurateurs in Tokyo: salads are not difficult. Make them fresh and make them big – it’s not just a decoration, it’s a major part of the meal.) The cheeses and meats served to whet my appetite for a pizza that turned out to be one of the better ones I’ve had, especially for just over 1000 yen.

While we didn’t order them, pasta dishes were in the same price range as pizzas and meat dishes topped out around 2000 yen. Raw oysters on the half shell were 500 yen apiece.

The most appealing part of my visit to Il Cantuccio, though, was the service: friendly servers who were quiet  rather than bellowing phrases they’d been trained to memorize or shouting greetings and thanks from across the room (I’ve never understood why I’m supposed to be impressed by someone shouting at me); attentive, as opposed to cloying, service. It’s the little things that count. When I’d finished my first drink, the waitress brought me a glass of water and waited nearby for a moment giving me an opportunity to order instead of interrupting my conversation to ask if I wanted another one. I’m not saying the latter is necessarily bad, but the former is far better. Not only was the manager concerned about serving things in the proper order, he  waited until one course was finished before bringing the next out and brought things out only when both of us were at the table, but was also flexible and accommodating when we started to run short on time.  Like I said, it’s the little things that count.

Total for two people including appetizers  and drinks: about 6000 yen.

The verdict? Go there. The next time you’re in Shimo-Kitazawa and have some time to spend on dinner, Il Cantuccio is the place I’d recommend.

If you have a restaurant yourself, go there now and study. Il Cantuccio combines prices and an atmosphere friendly and casual enough that I’d be a regular if I lived in the neighborhood with service unmatched even by most higher-end restaurants in a city known for good service.

Il Cantuccio is about a block from the South exit of Shimo-Kitazawa Station on the Odakyu line. When you get out of the station, walk under the archway at the entrance to the open arcade (past McDonald’s on your left) and walk about one block – you’ll see the sign on your right. The restaurant is on the second floor and has its own stairs.

Kitazawa 2-19-13 Setagaya-ku, phone: 03-3414-0456  (Google Map)

Smoking is permitted throughout (unless the rumors of an imminent change in the law are true).

Menu in Japanese and Italian, with some pictures.

About Garrett
Da mihi sis crustum Etruscum cum omnibus in eo.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!