It’s not a stretch to call out Japanese and Italian food among the most popular in New York City. Since the pandemic, the number of best sushi restaurants and pricey omakase menus to rustic pasta joints and modern Italian steakhouses continues to proliferate. There is one cuisine, however, that is having an only-in-New-York moment like never before: Itameshi, the Japanese spin on Italian food.
In Nolita, Kimika has been the most prominent champion of itameshi since it debuted on Kenmare Street near Bowery a year ago. The menu ranges from crispy panko-crusted eggplant katsu to bomboloncini, a playful combination that combines fried Italian doughnuts with mochi along with Nutella, toasted sesame, and hazelnut.
“Japan is a lot like New York: It doesn’t have any rules because anything you do in Japan automatically becomes Japanese. As soon as it’s been accepted, people don’t question it,” says Ivan Orkin, who famously upended ramen culture in Tokyo by, among other tricks, adding roasted tomatoes. “In America, you can’t just put something on the menu without saying its origin or explaining it or why you did it. If you don’t, people either get pissy or confused. But in Japan, they don’t care. Does it taste good? Then it’s great.”
“In Japan, doing a mentaiko spaghetti is not even Italian. You mostly find that dish at a kissaten, like an old-fashioned coffee shop,” Orkin says. “But one of the things that draws cooks like me to Japan in the first place is the tradition and ritual and doing one thing really, really well. I love eating Italian food in Tokyo. They’re fucking serious about it.”
Indeed, New York has its own kissaten in the Lower East Side’s Davelle, where a cozy brunch reminiscent of what could be found on the hit show Midnight Diner includes bowls of Napolitan spaghetti, mentai spaghetti, and uni spaghetti. Usually, itameshi dishes make a one-off appearance on menus: There’s a dry mushroom ramen with roasted pancetta, porcini butter, truffle oil, fried shallots, and parmesan at Chelsea’s Jun-Men that is essentially ramen carbonara topped with a dollop of uni. At Niche in the Lower East Side, which is temporarily closed, there was a chile mushroom tomato mazemen. There’s also Tenho’s spicy tomato tonkotsu ramen with bacon, basil sauce, and parmesan in Murray Hill. It’s a rarity to find a full itameshi meal, even in a spot that isn’t itameshi specific, as with 15 East at Toqueville’s angel hair uni carbonara and its silky sesame milk mineoka panna cotta with kumquat.
So, while Kimika is not the city’s first itameshi outpost, it is currently the city’s most prominent homage to itameshi. “At this moment in time,” says chef Christine Lau, “itameshi makes sense because it’s equal parts seasonal ingredients, dishes that are comforting and familiar in a way, but also some element that surprises because of the way the two cultures are blended.”
Literally meaning “casual Italian meal” in Japanese, the cuisine that offers a Japanese reimagining of Italian food has been around for decades. It’s often called a “fusion” or “mashup” of “polar opposites” but those monikers are more like the Frankenstinian artifice of sushi burritos or birria ramen.
Italian and Japanese cross-culturalism goes far deeper than that. In 1582, the Tenshō Embassy became the first formal Japanese visitors to Europe, with the ultimate goal of seeing Rome and meeting the Pope (they ended up meeting two popes). In modern times, consider the 1904 Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, which is set in Nagasaki, or Mario Segale, Nintendo’s suspenders-wearing Italian landlord who inspired the eponymous video game plumber. This century, Japan has made a striking embrace of espresso and pizza culture and has begun welcoming ingredients like garlic and tomato into its ramen pantheon.
“Just because something is comfort cuisine, it doesn’t mean it lacks cosmopolitanism. Or vice versa: Just because you’ve elevated comfort food, it doesn’t mean it necessarily loses its ties to home-cooking or personal memory,” says Ashley Rose Young, a 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 become Italian with just a small twist.”
She adds that it has been a long time coming: “Trade is often what brings cultures together. With Italy and Japan that has been happening back to the 1500s, so this was in some sense destined to happen.”
Both palates embrace almost microscopic regionalism and regulate exacting standards on both ingredients and technique, all while maintaining high regard by global visitors (not the least of whom are Michelin inspectors) with a broadly likeable flavor profile, whether its goal is umami or gusto. The two cuisines’ first restaurants in America were both in New York — Caffé Moretti, on Manhattan’s Cedar Street in the 1850s, where diners were confused about how to eat spaghetti, and a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan’s then-dicey James Street, whose name is lost to time after opening in 1889 and closing promptly despite 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 the most well-traveled tongue in New York who blogs about dishes he’s eaten from at least 145 nations citywide, over a bowl of Tenho’s tomato ramen. “My fear was that this would be overwhelming, heavier, like ramen marinara. But it’s actually, surprisingly, beautifully balanced. It’s the best of both countries, but it’s more Japanese.”
Where other chefs have only dipped their toes in itameshi waters, Lau has made a splash with a more festive cannonball approach at Kimika, which straddles Chinatown and Little Italy on Kenmare Street. Its menu is a giddy lesson that these cuisines rhyme, lifting both with lyrical interplay in a poetry at ease as both haiku and sonnet. It tastes like the travelers’ trifecta of adventure, discovery, and romance.
The menu starts with smart adaptations like seaweed grissini and fava beans in dipping salt (playful takes on breadsticks and edamame) before it advances through shrimp and prosciutto tortellini ozoni (a Japanese New Year’s soup) with mochi and naruto, onward to eggplant katsu and soy butter bigoli, then leaping with four-roe spaghetti and crescendoing with the far-and-away crowd-pleaser of rice cake lasagna (no matter what else a table orders, Lau saves this dish for last). In a plot twist: Lau isn’t Italian or Japanese. She’s Oakland-born to an immigrant family of Hong Kongers.
In a way, that heritage makes Lau itameshi’s ideal interpreter because both Italian and Japanese food are offshoot cousins of Chinese food, which might not have invented pasta but certainly accelerated its global popularity after hosting Marco Polo. Ramen is, in fact, part of chūka, a whole class of Japanese spins 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. It is partially because I am Chinese American. Instead of me shying away from the influence of the Chinese food on the menu — in the beginning I probably hid it a little more — now I just talk about it,” says Lau. “Itameshi is not something new. It’s historical. It’s become inherent even if it’s not the food everyone’s grandmother made. I’m not a historian by any means, but I am trying to highlight these natural meeting points I’ve tasted in my travels. I’m just a curator. I’m putting a relationship that exists on a plate for customers.”
Dessert helps, as always. Kimika’s yuenyeung tiramisu features espresso jellies in a genmaicha cream with layers of ladyfinger sponge cake soaked in espresso and dusted with cocoa kinako. Diners can wash it down with the Caffé Kodawari, a grappa-driven cocktail with amaro cio ciaro, house-made coffee cordial, five spice, and kodawari espresso. It’s best for the final flavor of the city’s fullest itameshi experience to be, well, fluid.