La Befana - Italian ***
Shimo Kitazawa and Kichi Joji
Shimo Kitazawa : Setagaya-ku, Daita 5-31-3 Kichi Joji Musashino-shi
Kichi Joji : Minamicho 1-10-11
Opening hours - Open every day morning and evening
Shimo Kitazawa : 03-3411-9500
Kichi Joji : 0422-71-4800
Menu - in Italian and Japanese
Credit Cards - OK
The original La Befana in Shimo Kitazawa (see my terse but enthusiastic review below) had been for many years one of a handful of Italian restaurants in Tokyo I truly like, and by far the best pizzeria in Tokyo: it would have been a good one even in Italy. Alas, things change, and the last time I was there I noticed new staff, a new director and a new atmosphere. The result was a bad evening.
The director was positively unfriendly and seemed not to understand well what me and my girlfriend (who is Japanese) said, the waitresses and the director became insistent in proposing more drink or food every time we got to the bottom of something, and the food itself was usually mediocre. Sometimes, as in the case of the mussles, it was terrible. Too bad, really too bad, because I will miss the old La Befana, its friendly staff and its delicious food. I will leave my old review just so that you know what it used to be like.
Kichi Joji Branch
The original La Befana in Shimo Kitazawa (see my terse but enthusiastic review below) has been for many years one of a handful of Italian restaurants I truly like, and by far the best pizzeria in Tokyo: it would be a good one even in Italy.
The folks in Shimo Kitazawa know me, so some time ago they sent me an invitation to visit a brand-new La Befana in Kichi Joji.
Living just two stations away, I of course went right away, and here I am to report.
So, have they added a new jewel to their crown? Strangely, no. The new branch is beyond any doubt a mediocrity. The cooks may be nice people, but they are far from being equal to their Shimo Kitazawa colleagues, so that I doubt they will see me again soon in there. How could I go back? Superbacco, just meters away, costs as much and is way superior, even though it doesn't serve pizzas.
The details :
On a side street behind Marui, LB isn't big, just a few tables, some of them in the garden and usable in comfort even during the winter thanks to a sort of greenhouse that insulates them.
It has that classic pizzeria look with red bricks and plain furniture, but none of the charm of the original.
Waiters are solicitous and efficient, the menu a twin of Shimo Kitazawa, but after the first taste any illusion you might have had dissipates. The appetizers were unexciting, the spaghetti had more than a whiff of a Japanese accent, the pizza disappointed. If you want to eat well, go to Superbacco or to the original LB in Shimo Kitazawa.
Shimo Kitazawa Branch
La Befana ("The Witch") is a great little restaurant and I love everything about it, even its logo, which is why I reproduce it here. And I am not the only one. We went fore the first time last Saturday, and the next day my girlfriend wanted to go again but was too embarrassed to.
The food is simple, the way true Italian food is: clear tastes are our strength (am I repeating myself too often?). Their pizzas are the traditional ones: marinara, napoletana, rucola and prosciutto cooked in a wood oven, and you can tell. I cannot recommend them enough.
We particularly enjoyed the "covaccino", pizza dough flavored with pepper, garlic and parmesan cheese and topped with raw ham, and the napoletana, pizza with tomato and anchovies. They have good wines (I am told. I hate wine), grappas, spaghetti, and other Italian stuff that I sorely missed for all these years. I am far from being a nationalist, but I do miss the food of the country of my birth, so La Befana is a godsend to me, also because once in a while I get a free grappa.
The manager used to be Carmine Cozzolino's younger brother, Angelo*, and he left a strong mark on the place: it's still exactly the same as when he was there. To have created a place so unlike Carmine's restaurants, he must very different from his brother. Carmine's restaurants are quiet, formal, immaculate, pretentious. In a word, they are restaurants. La Befana is rather an inn. A little loud and not particularly sophisticated, it serves simple, tasty food. In a word: highly recommended.
How to get there : Get out of Shimo Kitazawa's west exit, turn left, then immediately right. La Befana is right in front of you.
* Angelo Cozzolino now works at Babbo Angelo, excellent Italian restaurant in Juyugaoka.
Il Cantuccio - Italian ****
Address - Setagaya-ku Kitazawa 2-19-13
Opening hours - Every day lunch and dinner
Telephone - 03-3414-0456
Menu - In Italian and Japanese
Credit Cards - OK
Angelo Cozzolino, manager of La Befana, directs also "Il Cantuccio". Very different from La Befana, it is more expensive (but not unreasonably so, especially considering that the food is excellent) and less casual. I happen to prefer the plebeian spontaneity and explicit tastes of La Befana, but I must say that both restaurants are obviously the product of the same hand. Angelo Cozzolino is a good cook and an interesting, amusing, and lively man. His personality is definitely one of the assets of the restaurant. Recommended.
How to get there : Il Cantuccio couldn't be easier to find. Get out of Shimo Kitazawa Station's south exit, go downhill past MacDonalds, and after a hundred meters on the right side of the Street you will see Il Cantuccio's sign.
Shintaipei - Taiwanese ****
Address - Tokyo-to, Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-6-5
Opening Hours - from 5 pm to 12 pm
Telephone - 03-3485-1626
Menu - In Japanese
Shimo Kitazawa is one of my favorite spots in Tokyo, because it's full of young people whose energy I can parasitically suck in, but not of the trendy kind you find in Harajuku. Here, each person is a different individual minding his or her own business, and I like that. The restaurants are also more substantial and less flashy here than there. Just think of La Befana: a homely, unpretentious and lovely place like that could probably not exist in Harajuku or Omotensando.
I went for the first time to Shintaipei at least 15 years ago. I couldn't read Japanese, yet, and I thought it was just Tainantamii's Shimo Kitazawa branch: they are that similar. This is no small compliment, because Tainantamii is one of my favorite cheapies: same interior, same food style, same endless stream of tiny dishes at reasonable prices. It's loud, but in this case that's OK: Chinese food goes well with din and dirt.
Directions : get out of Shimo Kitazawa's south exit, turn immediately left, then again left at the vegetable store. Shintaipei is immediately after the railroad tracks, on the right.
Saigon Dep Lam - Vietnamese
Address - Tokyo-to, Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-15-3 Nakamura Bldg 1FL
Opening hours -12:00 pm to 3:00 pm and 5:30 pm to 11:00 pm, 12:00 to 11:00 on Saturdays, Sunday closed
Telephone - 03-3411-3566
Menu - In Japanese
Shimo Kitazawa is one of my favorite Tokyo neighborhoods, and I like to contrast it with Harajuku, which viceversa is one of the areas I love least. Both are frequented by young people, but they are otherwise opposites. Interestingly, Saigon Dep Lam has a branch in both locations.
And Saigon Dep Lam is a typical Shimo Kitazawa joint. This very pleasant restaurant really looks like a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant, just cleaner: we are in Japan, after all. The menu, like the prices, although very good is pretty unoriginal and will surprise nobody: for 900 yen or so you can have the usual raw or fried springrolls, fried rice, and all the other standards we already know. Very well done, but unsurprising. The atmosphere is where Saigon Dep lam really shines and the reason you want to try it; luminous, cheerful and picturesque, it will keep you entertained while you wait for the food. The staff are very young and efficient, though, so it won't take that long. And if the place is busy, no problem: go to Cafè Bar Pierrot, another typical, picturesque Shimo Kitazawa place just around the corner, and wait half an hour drinking a beer in the open air, watching people flow downhill or listening to live music, usually pleasant and always in the background.
As I mentioned, SDL has a branch in Harajuku, and the folks at Tokyo Q seem to have liked it. Here is the address.
Harajuku branch: Hanadorobo Building (Interesting name: it means "Flower Thief Building")
Address - Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, 4-28-16 Jingumae
Phone - 03-3478-2540