America's red-sauce interpretation of Italian cuisine seems so natural by now that it's hard to think of it as a synthetic cuisine at all, even when it's contrasted with the true indigenous dishes of Italy. So it's startling to encounter a different thriving hybrid: Japanese-Italian cuisine. For a long time, Italy has been exerting a culinary influence in Japan as surely as it has here: The two cultures, bound together by noodles and other commonalities, mesh neatly on the plate.
A couple of restaurants specializing in the merger have opened in the last months. Walking into TriBeCa's Greenwich Grill — through a corridor lined with wine bottles into a serene white-tableclothed room — the diner's temporary feeling that this could be a familiar type of Italian restaurant is shattered by shouts of "Irasshaimase," a traditional Japanese welcome, from the staff. The restaurant is run by a Japanese company called Plan Do See, and has a smooth professionalism; as at Restaurant Chanto, which before it closed last year was run by another Japanese multinational, the servers wear earpieces so they can be constantly communicating, although the pace in the small dining room doesn't seem to require that degree of high-tech choreography.
A heaping dish of fried calamari rings ($9), served with a lemony tartar sauce, is much the same one that can be found anywhere. Not so a daily carpaccio, which is sliced from fish flown in from Tokyo's giant Tsukiji market ($14). When I tried it, the fish was striped bass, and superbly tasty, although that could only be discerned after scraping off the heaps of fresh ginger and scallions that dress the dish. Downstairs is a sushi bar, Sushi Azabu, from which I sampled some unusually delicious fish as well: Ruddy tuna and lushly succulent yellowtail were part of the $50 tasting menu I tried.
A raft of pastas can be ordered in half or full portions. There's an "Americano" spaghetti with meat ragu ($7/$13); a carbonara made with the eggs of jidori, prized pastured and fresh-killed chickens ($8/$15), and a rich, sweet tangle of spaghettini ($9/$17) tossed with shreds of zuwai snow crab and bottarga — salt-dried fish roe, a southern Italian ingredient whose savory fishiness is reminiscent of similar Japanese products. The server warned us that a risotto of seaweed and sea urchin ($16/$28) isn't to everyone's taste, but anyone who doesn't appreciate the mellow richness of cooked urchin laid on marine-salty, brothy rice is missing out.
Moco, in the business district of Murray Hill, has a empty, yet frantic, feel of a restaurant that hasn't found its stride yet. But chef Joe Kurauchi's Japanese-Italian (with a hint of Spanish) cooking is dead-on. The menu is harder to navigate than that of Greenwich Grill, with sections for soups (such as "misostrone") and sushi, along with "primi," "secondi," and "entremeses," and dishes called "Puffy Puffy Puffy" and "Black Dragon Roll Z II." There's a calamari starter again ($9), but this one's far more interesting, fried in a tempura-style fluffy batter that's stained black with squid ink — although that effect is obscured by the extreme dimness of the dining room. Thin potato puree, garlicky and also dyed black, does double duty as a side starch and a dipping sauce.
Loco moco ($14) is a Hawaiian comfort-food standard, a bowl of rice topped with a burger, a runny fried egg, and beef gravy. Moco serves it as a hefty starter, the rice flavored with Parmesan and the small beef patty excellently tender. A drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze serves to remind us just which island we're on. Secondi include veal scallopine ($22) and teriyaki chicken ($17), as well as a hunk of oxtail ($24) braised "for three or four days," according to the server — a case in which low turnover works to the customer's advantage. The meat is succulent, dramatically flavorful, and surprisingly intact given its travails. A potato-thickened bath of gravy adds deliciously to the effect.
These two aren't the first Japanese-Italian restaurants in New York — Dieci and Natsumi come to mind — but they're early skirmishes in what promises to be an interesting and tasty culinary wave.
Moco Global Dining (516A Third Ave., between 34th and 35th streets, 212-685-3663).
Greenwich Grill (428 Greenwich St., between Vestry and Laight streets, 212-274-10013)