The popularity of pizza has never actually waned, but it’s very fair to say that the beloved pie is having a massive moment around the world. Pizza trends are proliferating everywhere, as pop-ups are slinging styles like knock-off Neapolitans, thick and crispy Detroit squares, or the reinvention of the New York slice.
Pizza has also risen in the ranks of the world’s top chefs. Culinary masters like Wylie Dufresne and David Kinch have opened Stretch Pizza and Mentone respectively, and are pushing the limits of what a great pie can really be.
With all that said, it was only a matter of time until Tokyo Pizza found its way into the lexicon and started to pop up in surprising places.
Now, if you want to make sense of everything that’s going on in the world of pizza, it’s important to talk to an expert. That expert is the Pizza Czar. Anthony Falco is an international pizza consultant and probably knows more about every style of pizza than practically anyone else on the planet. Falco has a new book out called Pizza Czar, which is a collection of stories from his world of consulting, plus loads of pizza recipes. And because there’s a chapter on Tokyo, this is probably a great place to start.
Image credit Evan Sung.
At first blush, Tokyo pizza sounds like an anathema. Thoughts immediately go to Asian sauces and spices that seem discordant with what a traditional pizza can or should be. But that couldn’t be further from the reality as the Tokyo pizza journey started in Italy and can be traced to one man named Susumu Kakinuma and his legendary Tokyo pizzeria Seirinkan.
“Tokyo style really starts with one person who added his idiosyncrasies to something that exists already,” says Falco. “The story is that Kakinuma backpacked around Italy as a young man and the pizza blew him away. He tried to train there but it didn’t happen. Still, he understood the concepts, held on to his pizza memories, and returned to Japan… He had an oven built based on what he saw in Naples but using Japanese stones.”
The question remains for how to define a Tokyo-style pizza. As Falco describes the pies at Seirinkan, again, it’s about those idiosyncrasies. “It’s the way that he stretches it out where he picks up the edge of the dough with his hands, and then stretches from the edge, creating a rippled crust. There are these pinches all around the outside of the crust, instead of a perfectly round edge. It’s a rippled edge but also a big pouffy crust. And he did another thing, which was to add salt all over the top of the pizza before it went in the oven and salt on the floor of the oven before he put the pizza in. This is a Neapolitan trick where you throw some salt where you're going to cook the pizza and it takes off some of the heat, so you don't immediately burn the dough. Kakinuma calls it the salt punch. So, if I had to really boil it down, it’s the simplicity of ingredients, the quality of ingredients, and the pinching of the crust.”
Photo credit: Evan Sung
At Seirinkan, there’s only a margherita and a marinara pizza and everything about the dough and ingredients is about balance. Balance between the size and placement of the mozzarella, balance of the basil on top, balance of sauce and oil and oregano and salt. What makes the pizza quintessentially Japanese is this meticulous attention to every little detail that combines aesthetics and taste in perfect harmony.
Because of the success of Seirinkan, and the subsequent Tokyo pizzerias that followed like Savoy, PST, and Il Pappalardo (in Kyoto), the idea of Tokyo-style pizza began to take shape and started to emigrate from the land of the rising sun.
Tokyo pizza has popped up in Bangkok, Singapore, and even Kuwait, which Falco consulted on. There’s Tokyo Pizza (that’s the name of the restaurant) in London, the popular Akiba Dori franchise in Dubai, Hot Rock in Perth, Australia, and just announced, a new Tokyo-style pizzeria coming to Los Angeles from chef Jason Neroni of The Rose Venice. And this trend is just getting started.
The levels of Tokyo pizza perfection are contagious, but can they be replicated? Inherently, there might be a problem with all these Tokyo-pizza wannabes. There’s a concept in Japan called ikigai, which roughly translates to a reason for getting up in the morning or a life’s purpose. The Tokyo pizza makers dedicate their lives to perfecting their craft the same way sushi shokunin do or other craftspeople do in Japan. To achieve the harmony and balance of a Tokyo pizza, the question will remain as to whether these Tokyo-style enthusiasts will be dedicating their lives in the same way.
Anthony Falco, photo credit: Evan Sung
As Falco puts it: “Ultimately it would take one person who is committed to doing it, but, in the same way the Japanese pizza makers took Neapolitan pizza and added their own idiosyncrasies, maybe what would happen is that along the way, these chefs would put their own idiosyncrasies in there and develop their own style.”
Keep a watch out for Tokyo-style pizza coming to a city near you, but remember, it’s the details that really matter. And if you want to try your hand at your own version of Tokyo-style, check out Falco’s new book, Pizza Czar, because there’s a Tokyo pizza recipe in there for you to meld with your own idiosyncrasies.