Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2007
To get to Il Ristorante nella Pergola, you must walk from Ebisu station, past Ebisu Prime Square, past the 5-meter tall bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David (exposing all his glory), past a corner green grocery, two ramen shops, an organic rice boutique, past intersection after intersection until you think, It can’t be any further away. Finally, though, you spot that long, white-curtained window, and you’ve arrived at one of Tokyo’s loveliest Italian restaurants.
Since he opened three years ago, Chef Saito has been quietly turning out superlative examples of high-end Italian fare. Some nights in the beginning, only one or two tables were booked for dinner. Slowly, though, by word of mouth—very well satisfied mouths—Pergola has become so popular, you’ll be lucky now to get a reservation.
Saito is from Hokkaido. After graduating from cooking school at 20, he headed for Italy, where he worked for two years in Lombardy and Venice, perfecting his technique and refining his palate. When he returned to Tokyo, he worked at restaurant Monnalisa (one-star Michelin) to study the French approach to cuisine.
The food at Pergola is beautifully conceived and presented. Saito has subtly combined both his Italian and French training to create his own style. He has an artist’s sensitivity to colors, shapes and textures. He also has a light touch with seasoning, letting each ingredient speak for itself. The result is delicious modern art on white Ginori plates.
Saito’s menu is constantly updated to reflect the changes within each season. The lunch course (¥3,500) includes an amuse to spark your taste buds, perhaps a tiny handled bowl with a spoonful or two of sakura ebi and quail’s egg, baked and dusted with flecks of parsley. This is followed by an appetizer, one main dish, and dessert.
One never knows what surprises Saito will come up with, but memorable dishes have included pumpkin and fig ravioli, “Parmesan creme brulee, scallops with black truffles, green asparagus with scarmorza (the deliciously smoky cousin of mozzarella), potato gnocchi with veal ragú, roasted butterfish with scallops, or sautéed sea bass with Mediterranean vegetables.
All the pastas are house-made, with stand-out dishes like penne with veal and cabbage or linguine with squid ink, parmesan and parsley. Of course, the focaccia and other breads are freshly baked.
Saito also excels at desserts, which include various seasonal ice creams and other creations, like a recent mikan soufflé paired with mikan granita.
The most popular dinner is the ¥7,000 prix fixe course. Start off with a glass of spumante (¥1,200), and wait to be surprised. The sommelier can recommend a suitable bottle or glass from the 200 Italian wines in the cellar.
The small open dining room seats only about 20 guests in a quietly subdued space with clean lines, dark wood flooring and white walls. The tables are laid with crisp white linen and are comfortably spaced. One wall is glass, revealing an enclosed garden. At lunchtime, the room is bright and airy, and in the evenings, warm lighting makes the space intimate and romantic.
Saito’s father is a retired poultry farmer back in Hokkaido. He still has a few hens, so all the eggs used at Pergola come from the family farm. The father also knows a guy who knows a guy who grows the tastiest potatoes in Japan. When I told Saito how much I enjoyed his spuds, he gave me a kilo of the dirt-crusted tubers to take home.