To open Daikaya Group’s latest restaurant, chef and partner Katsuya Fukushima had to overcome his fear of dough.
Tonari, which opens tonight next-door to Daikaya, in the former Graffiato space in Chinatown, represents a departure from the group’s four previous places, all ramen shops that have built loyal followings with superlative broths and small plates that combine Eastern and Western flavors. The new restaurant repurposes the former Mike Isabella restaurant into a venue for wafu (Japanese-style) Italian noodle dishes and pizza made in a deep-dish pan like one might find at a Pizza Hut in Tokyo.
To develop his own version of pizza, Fukushima had to knead, proof, and bake his way through a specific cooking anxiety. “Bread’s always scared me. It still scares me,” says Fukushima, who has opened a dozen restaurants for José Andrés and cooked at famous gastronomy labs minibar and El Bulli.
The result of Fukushima’s labors is a thick, square pie with a crust made out of Hokkaido wheat flour. Cooks use rice oil to grease the pans, giving the pizzas a brown, crunchy crust that encases a tall, pillowy interior. It’s fermented for up to three days to mimic the structure of Japanese white bread.
The first four flavors range from one with Jersey tomato red sauce, pepperoni cups sourced from Philadelphia, and soy-pickled jalapenos, to another made with mentaiko (pollock roe) cream, a Kewpie mayonnaise and corn puree, and kernels of canned corn. All the pizzas have Wisconsin brick cheese, a signature of Detroit-style pizza. “I like the way it melts,” explains Fukushima.
In typical Daikaya Group fashion, members of the ownership team traveled to Japan to research dishes for Tonari, which translates to “neighbor.” Officials at the Nishiyama Seimen Co. that supplies the group with its ramen noodles pointed them to the Yokoyama Seifun mill in Sapporo. The test kitchen at the mill helped the group develop a custom pizza dough, and Nishiyama helped the restaurant come up with its noodles.
Wafu Italian pasta is a cuisine with a long track record in Japan. A tiny Tokyo restaurant called Kabe no Ana that dates back to 1953 gets credit as the first wafu Italian spot. Pastas fold in favorite Japanese ingredients like tarako (cod roe), uni (sea urchin), shiitake mushroom, nori, and dashi. One example at Tonari is a pappardelle with shishito peppers, nori, and Japanese mushrooms in a garlic-butter sauce with soy, nori, and pecorino cheese.
Partner Daisuke Utagawa, a Tokyo native, says the texture of Tonari’s pasta is springier than traditional Italian styles and eats in a different way than typical al dente noodles.
“It doesn’t snap, but it resists in a very chewy, pleasant way,” he says.
One of Utagawa’s favorite pastas exists in its own category outside wafu Italian food. Spaghetti Napolitan represents the earliest and most basic Japanese tributes to Italian food with ketchup-based sauce, green peppers, and smoked sausages. The sweet condiment gets partially tamed in the pan, Utagawa says, creating flavors that encourage repeat eating, especially after a long night. At Tonari, it’s served with packets of Tabasco on the side.
Tonari will also have some Japanese-Italian antipasti, like a cold plate of silken tofu made on-site and topped with Italian anchovies, extra virgin olive oil, white soy sauce, and scallions. With the exception of a yuzu foam that cloaks a bowl of tiramisu, pastry chef Mary Mendoza is keeping the desserts simple and classically Italian. For example, there’s an espresso gelato affogato and a Valrhona chocolate budino made without the aid of cornstarch.
Co-owner Yama Jewayni led the design of the restaurant with longtime collaborator Brian Miller of edit lab at Streetsense. On the first floor, Tonari is covered in blonde wood, and vinyl jazz albums recreate the mood of a Japanese record bar. Beverage director Nalee Kim is serving lots of Italian digestifs and continuing the straightforward theme with a list of old-school cocktails and “modern-ish” options like a smoky manhattan or a tart cherry bourbon sour.
Upstairs, black wood is the dominant material. Tables sink into the floor horigotatsu style, with customers sitting on cushions. People are supposed to remove their shoes, put them in cubbies, and use slides provided by the restaurant if they need to visit the bathroom. All of it, including a moss garden installation, takes a nod from Kyoto. A dessert bar where Mendoza will offer tasting menus of sweets is still under construction.
The old-school elements in the drinks and desserts are meant to help comfort customers who are new to wafu Itailan pasta and Japanese pizza. Fukushima plans to spend plenty of time explaining the food, and he expects his fair share of critics who don’t expect dishes to veer away from Italian-American standards.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to defend it,” he says.