When Salvatore Cuomo drops his children off at school in Tokyo, he is often greeted by other parents with cries of “Hey, the pizza man!” It is a testament to how popular the Italian master chef has become in Japan due to the success of his more than 50 pizzeria and restaurants. “It makes me very happy. And it’s not just in Japan. Once in Singapore, I was walking along and one person came up to me and said, ‘I know you.’ It’s gratifying to be recognized by customers,” says Cuomo, sitting down in the office of his company Salvatore Cuomo Japan Inc.
Born in Naples in 1972 to an Italian father and Japanese mother, Cuomo went to school in Italy and dropped out when he was 11. “My father wasn’t happy about it but he let me work in his pizza shop. I studied pizza-making and I used to deliver pizzas by hand in a big bronze pot,” he recalls. A few years later, he returned to Japan with his father who opened an Italian restaurant in Chiba in 1984, but it wasn’t a good experience. “I didn’t like Japan at all, so after one year, I went back to Italy and spent 2-3 years studying at a culinary school. When I was 18, I returned to Japan after my father became terminally ill and I have been here ever since.”
Cuomo says that Italian cuisine was just starting to get popular in those days. He and his two brothers decided that in order to succeed in the restaurant business in Japan, they would have to understand the Japanese food mentality. They spent a couple of years researching the market before opening a new restaurant in Tokyo with what Cuomo calls “original Neapolitan pizza.”
Since that time, Cuomo has been credited with catapulting Neapolitan pizza to fame in Japan and he has gone from strength to strength and today he operates and supervises more than 40 Pizza Salvatore Cuomo restaurants, four The Kitchen Salvatore Cuomo restaurants (in Roppongi Hills, Kyoto, Nagoya and Shanghai), as well as Salvatore Cuomo Bros (under the umbrella of XEX), BOTTEGA casual dining, CAFÉ AL GRAZIE and Italiaichiba BAR establishments. In fact, each time a new restaurant opens, Cuomo adds its name to his business card – which means he’s getting a lot of cards printed these days.
In addition to his restaurant activities, Cuomo has made numerous guest appearances on TV programs such as “The Iron Chef” and “Buona Sera,” an Italian cooking program on WOWOW. He has written three books, “Welcome to Neapolitan Dining Table” (1995), “Viva La Napoli” (1997) and “Sun’s Dining Table” (1999). But he is very careful that all his outside activities do not take him out of the kitchen for too long. “It’s very important to stay in my chef’s uniform. I may be a CEO but the kitchen is my second home. You can only understand the feelings of your customers by being there, not just by asking staff.”
Goal is to be the 'only one,' not 'No. 1'
Cuomo says his goal is to be the “only one,” rather than No. 1. “You know, if you want to get three stars, you can do it, but to keep it is hard and it doesn’t always impress customers. You start thinking you are the best, but you can’t be No. 1 for ever. There are a lot of trattoria in Tokyo. For me, I am happy to introduce my food to customers and then they decide. Hopefully, when they want to go out for Italian, they’ll say: ‘Salvatore is the only place for me.’”
The popularity of the Pizza Salvatore restaurants lies in the skill of his chefs, Cuomo says. Thin-crafted but chewy pizza is baked quickly in the wood-fired oven built by a Neapolitan craftsman. “Neapolitan pizza has a history of about 1,000 years ago,” says Cuomo. “Besides the ovens, most of the materials are imported from Italy – cheese, tomatoes, oil. In terms of cooking style, I learned the base from my father – how to use tomato, cheese, seafood and other ingredients. However, the most important implement in making a pizza is your hands. When I am teaching my Japanese chefs, that’s what I tell them. You have to show them how to get the feel of the dough. I think you need 2-3 years to become a good pizza chef.”
With so many restaurants to oversee, it can become a challenge for Cuomo to maintain quality control. “I try to visit all the restaurants regularly and so I travel a lot in Japan and also to Shanghai. Recently, in one day, I went to Osaka just for three hours to test food and then went off to Shanghai. Sometimes, when I am training staff, I have to taste up to 100 pizzas in one day.” His team has already made a name for itself by winning awards at two world pizza championships in Naples in 2006 and 2007. “That was a thrill,” Cuomo says. “It was the first time that someone from Japan won. See, you don’t have to be from Naples and have a long history of making pizza to win.”
Trying something new, Cuomo and Crystal Jade Japan last December jointly launched a restaurant in Kawasaki that combines pizza with Chinese cuisine. At one counter you can take antipasto and mix it with a Chinese menu. This month, he opened in Kyoto a pizzeria combined with robata-style cuisine (grilling skewered foods over charcoal) for the first time in his company. But that’s about as adventurous as he is likely to get. “Don’t worry, we won’t be serving sushi with pizza.” In July, he will open a new trattoria in Shirokane, focusing more on seafood and pasta.
Overall, Cuomo says that Italian cuisine in Tokyo is every bit as good as back in Italy. “I think Tokyo is one of the best cities for high quality restaurants in the world, not just for Italian food.” Not that he gets much of a chance to try anything else. “I eat Italian food in my restaurants for lunch and dinner seven days a week,” he admits. “Even when I get invited out for dinner, they take me to an Italian restaurant.”
Cuomo works a long day, usually getting up early to take his kids to school. Most mornings, he is in his office, while afternoons and evenings are restaurant time. Sunday is his only day off which he devotes to his Korean-Japanese wife and children, to whom he teaches the art of making pizza. Being a master chef, Cuomo wouldn’t be caught dead in a fast food restaurant. Or would he? “I have been into McDonald’s and other places such as convenience stores, but not for the food. After you eat it once, that’s enough. However, it is important to see their business formula, their concept, to see what young people are eating.”
With his cheerful face adorning his restaurants and flyers all over the city, Cuomo can find himself in awkward situations when he is out and about. “Sometimes when I go home, I see people in my apartment building taking our flyers out of their mailbox and getting ready to throw it away. Then they see me and keep it,” he says with a laugh.
For more info on Salvatore Cuomo, visit http://www.salvatore.jp© Japan Today