executive impact

A taste of Italy

By Chris Betros

On May 26, an online shopping site was launched to bring genuine Italian food and lifestyle products to consumers and restaurants in Japan. The website (http://www.veraitalia.jp/) features products selected by Elio Orsara, owner of the restaurant Elio Locanda Italiana established 15 years ago in the Tokyo Kojimachi area. It is being operated by Royal Tirrenian, a company established just over a year ago by Orsara and Italian entrepreneur Erica Borile.

Borile and Orsara visited Italy to personally select the products, with the aim of introducing consumers in Japan to the authentic Italian taste and culture. There is a gap between the real Italian taste and the image that the general Japanese public has of it. For example, products like Parmesan cheese or olive oil are now being produced in many different areas of the world and are quite easy to find in supermarkets. Nevertheless, olive oils that are not produced in Italy still are being marketed with the Italian flag. The products sold on veraitalia.jp come from relatively small, family-run companies that work with passion and are very attentive to preserving and carrying on their local traditions.

Born in the north of Italy, Borile went to university in Venice where she majored in Asian languages and culture. She came to Japan on short trips in 2002 and 2003 to study the language, and returned in 2007 after graduating from university.

How did you get into the food importing business?

When I came back in 2007, I only planned to stay a few months. I was teaching Italian, and doing some translations and interpreting for Italian companies coming to Japan. I was in Kyoto at that time and it was very nice, but I was looking for more of a challenge. So I moved to Tokyo and worked for a while at the Italian Chamber of Commerce. That’s where I met Elio and we started working together on this new project. He had been thinking to do something new that could promote authentic Italian food, products and lifestyle in Japan. Royal Tirrenian was established in March last year.

What is your business line?

We import Italian products such as wine, olive oil, dried tomatoes, tomato sauce and cheese from the south of Italy for Italian restaurants. We have a very good selection of almost everything you might need to cook good Italian food at home.

How was business in your first year?

Even though last year was not the best time to start a new company, we had some positive results. We approached a lot of restaurants. Elio has a long background here and he knows a lot of people. You start with people you know and they introduce you to potential new customers. It takes time to develop a network and gain customers’ trust. Currently, we are selling to about 20 restaurants in the Kanto area.

Do you sell to supermarkets?

No, we prefer to deal directly with customers. That helps us remain competitive.

Tell us about the online shopping site www.veraitalia.jp.

Quite simply, we wanted to reach the public. We received some good suggestion from Hideki Ogino, a well-known web marketer and friend of ours, on how to build the site and promote it so it achieves a high result on search engines. It has got off to a good start with nearly 90 products available online. It is simple, easy to remember and explains the concept. We also explain to customers where the products come from, who is producing them and why they are 100% authentic products.

We are very proud of offering fresh products like mozzarella, salami and ham. Compared to other high-quality Italian products in the market, the price is comparable, but the freshness is much higher because we have them flown to Japan three times a week. You can receive products 2-3 days after you place an order.

How has the response been since you launched the site?

I am surprised that we got a very good response both in terms of media coverage and from customers. Many people have registered and we took orders early on. I think it will take from 6 months to one year to stabilize. At the beginning, it is natural to have a peak in orders.

How are you marketing your company?

Word of mouth has been the best marketing means so far, and network connections. With our online shopping project, we are considering collaborations with associations or companies, as well as taking part in food fairs and exhibitions.

Is the website only aimed at individual consumers?

No, we also want to deal with privately-owned restaurants, especially for those outside Tokyo where the distribution system is not so good. Often, they cannot get authentic products, so they either have to use something that is not Italian.

What feedback did you get at the launch event?

Many people told me they are looking for quality and freshness. A lot of Japanese people go to Italy and experience regional cuisine there. Then they come back to Japan and are disappointed that they can’t get that same taste here. Or they bring back food but the taste is different from what they buy in supermarkets here.

Japanese consumers have detailed knowledge and are very sophisticated about Italian products. They are so eager to master information about certain products, and one of the attractions of the website is that we can provide that information, whether it is about how ham is produced, or a specific area of Italy.

Are you planning an English version of the website?

Yes, we hope to have it up and running in September.

Have you had to make any changes to product sizes or packaging for the Japanese market?

We won’t change the product because we want consumers to know the real taste. For the size of package, ideally, we would like to provide people with the same size package that is sold in Italy, but we know that in Japan, because of space restrictions with smaller fridges, or people living by themselves, some consumers may not be able to use the whole product in a short time. So we will have to consider changing package sizes.

You mentioned earlier it can be hard to find the authentic Italian taste in Japan.

When we were doing research, we talked with the Italian foreign trade institute and other research institutions. According to the data we collected, for some exports, the percentage of 100% authentic Italian products is 2-3% of what is available in the market. I was shocked.

When the label says Made in Italy, most of the time there has been at least one process done outside Italy. Even if an olive oil is bottled in Italy, it doesn’t mean it comes from Italian olives. With some products, like olive oil or Parmesan cheese, the brand and logo are very Italian sounding and so is the image on the label, but in reality, they are not made in Italy.

What about Italian restaurants?

There seem to be an enormous number of Italian flags outside restaurants, although I wouldn’t say they are all authentic Italian. On the other hand, I would say the quality of some Italian restaurants in Tokyo is world-class.

What are some of your favorite ones?

La Lettera in the Kagurazaka area has good food and reasonable prices, especially for that area, and a very funny and charming Japanese owner who is more Italian than Italians. Another one is La bicocca (Komazawa daigaku area). Beppe, their Italian pizzaiolo, comes from Naples and makes amazing pizzas. I also recommend Trattoria Briccola in Shinjuku-sanchome and Sol Levante in Omotesando.

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That just made my day. I'm tired of having to go to Azabu to get acceptable italian ingredients.

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Probably will use the site, but this is the 2nd time something about this site has been on here. There are surely more places like this.

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Probably will use the site, but this is the 2nd time something about this site has been on here. There are surely more places like this.

Yeah, and when I had a look at their stuff it's nothing special. I can get almost everything that's there already, although I do have to shop around a bit. Plus their site irritated me intensely by selling pre-sliced salami. They claim they're it's the real deal in terms of Italian food, but ask any Italian mama about pre-sliced salami... well, you'd better have earplugs and have removed anything fragile from the area. It's strictly a no-no. I can't find anywhere in Japan where I can get a real, whole Italian salami.

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Grew up in an Italian family and have been going to Tokyo few many years. I check out the restaurants and supermarkets when I'm there and as for restaurants, yes it's tough to get authentic Italian food,the same for supermarkets. Sometimes you'll see what looks like an Italian product with an Italian name, but on closer inspection, it's made in Japan. Your best bet is the higher end restaurants and supermarkets in central Tokyo, if that's any help.

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Some fair prepackage stuff but to get a taste of Italy they need to have more of the basic ingredients for making Italian sauces and dough. Who wants to buy canned tomato sauce? They should consider selling San Marzano tomatoes and Italian wheat flour (type 0 or 00). Does anyone know where to buy these items in Tokyo?

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Well, it is a good idea, but it will never be the same: transported tomato and tomato bought on a Saturday market in Como. The same goes for japanese food purchased in Europe: good to survive but not really authentic

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I agree it never will be the same.

For one reason the climate, atmosphere is different those do affect taste. Also freshness of ingredients matters.

I had Parma-ham in Parma and it changed flavour(well known for it) just 15km outside Parma.

One thing I find sad is that Italian cuisine in Japan is poor and most people don't even get close to the Original flavour.

Where is a Quattro Stagione Pizza, "Spaghetti Carbonara" got BOTH the sauce and Pasta wrong, etc. Try finding a decent Calzone in Tokyo.

Grrr, I like my food but hate to see it butchered for local tastes. (California roll, etc)

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Zenny11, if you want good Italian pizza made with Italian flour, try Tonino's at Shimotakaido. Tony, who comes from Ischia, insists on fine ingredients. http://www.pizzeriatonino.it

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Da Isa in Nakameguro is the place for authentic Napoli Pizza in Tokyo. This guy has won the Naples World Pizza Championship multiple times. Be prepared for LONG lines.


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I usually go to "Dear Mable" in Kichijoji, his pizza's are nice and decently priced. Does both Roma and Napoli style.

Way better and more affordable than the other places in the area and that includes "Tomy's NY style Pizza"(just avoid the natto topped one).

Call me weird but after having visited Italy many times(few hours on train for us) Pasta and Pizza are still starters amd equivalent of Hot-Dogs so I won't pay much for them.

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there is one very good italian restaurant in Osaka between nichiohachi and nishinagahori train station, the owner is italian living in japan for more then 10 years already. food is very close to authentic, but prices are quite high...

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Fortunately their business is not geared towards foreigners eh ? They'd go bust otherwise.

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"Fortunately their business is not geared towards foreigners eh ? They'd go bust otherwise" Because the Japanese travel extensively, a certain proportion of them will recognize poor imitations of the real thing.

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When it comes to Italian food people don't realize the complexity involved, Italian Cuisine is one of the most complex in the world and then so very basic. Here is a little history about Italian Cuisine: Italian cuisine has developed through centuries of social and political changes, with roots as far back as the 4th century. Italian cuisine in itself takes heavy influences from Etruscan, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, Byzantine, Germanic, Gaelic, Norman, Jewish and Arab cuisines. Significant changes occurred with the discovery of the New World with the introduction of items such as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and maize, now central to the cuisine but not introduced in quantity until the 18th century. Italian cuisine is noted for its regional diversity, abundance of difference in taste, and is known to be one of the most popular in the world, with influences abroad.

The reason that its almost impossible to get the same taste has also to do with climate and the main ingredients such as water. Also the cooking time involved has a big impact. For example all does people who are from Italy know how much time our Mums or Grandmas spent in the kitchen. Nowadays how many of us spent time about cooking and the same applies in restaurants, most of restaurants owner just pre-head everything or comes direct from a can to our plate. I would suggest that they educate their customers on how to proper cook the products they sale then the taste will be much better.

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I would suggest that they educate their customers on how to proper cook the products they sale then the taste will be much better.

I agree taht more education is needed when selling overseas food(not just italian). See it often at Supers when they promote certain overseas foods, they sell them but few Japanese know how to eat or prepare them.

Once a friend wanted to try some lesser known Italian cuisine, so I made him some Gnocci witha thick creamy mushroom sauce.

He loved it and was suprised how easy and quick it was to prepare the Gnocci(bought at Kaldi). Also the nutrition info shocked him as he has to look after his diet.

So much overseas foods gets left on the shelf as many consumers are not aware of the items or how to prepare them.

Just my view.

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Zenny11: agreed more education would be better. Anyway conclusion is: authentic food is always the best in a country of origin

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Just offer me some cheap olives and real cheese and Ill be happy.

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If you're ever in Fukui-ken I ran across a great pizzaria called "Bird Land" up in the north, in a little town called Mikuni. The owner studied in Naples and he's very faithful to the flavour (naturally not the same as eating in Naples, but as close as you're going to get 14 000-odd kilometers away).

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I agree with Frungy. I am currently living in Fukui-ken not far from Mikuni. We go to Birdland about once a month. It has a very lovely family feeling when you walk in. The place is very cozy. A perfect spot in the cold winters. They even have blankets you can put on your lap if you are cold. The food is fantastic. There are usualy about 10 of us that meet there for dinner. We can never decide what to get, because the food is so good, that we will each order something different and share. I highly recommend it!!!

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