lifestyle

The pizza man

22 Comments
By Chris Betros

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

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.


22 Comments
Login to comment

Great for him. I love pizzas but have always considered a real and true pizza to be Neopolitan style, thin and fired up in a brick oven or wood fired, not in those industrial ovens the chain pizzerias use.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The SC marinara is my favorite. So simple but oh, so good. The inaka-fu salad is another reason in itself to drop by.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have to add this to my to do list the next time I'm in Japan. I can't say no to good Italian food. Best continued success to the pizza man.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Saw this guy on tv once and was unimpressed. He was berating this cook who was working the pizza station on the grand opening of one of his chains because the guy didn't know the basics. He made the guy stay in after the shop close to show him the basics, I guess it was suppose to make us all think he was a dedicated shokunin.

All it said to me was that he was cutting costs by posting a freaking newbie on his most important station on the grand opening of a shop and had only himself to blame for not preparing his staff better. Try spending a little more time and money on training, SC.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Marry me, Salvatore, you are the perfect man, Italian + good chef. Cook me pizza every day.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Good story, Chris. But...now I'm hungry.

Taka

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Salvatore's lasagne is magnifico.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sarge, the lasagne is magnifique too? oh, this man is a prescious treasure...why not all men are like him, why???????????

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Princeska - It is. And it's only around 900 yen!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Thanks, Sarge! I have nerver heard of his restaurants until today but would like to try his food.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Not impressed at all with the service at either of his restaurants. At the Atago Towers restaurant his staff were happy to walk around in front of customers shouting 'va funculo' (if you are in any way fluent in Italian, like I am, then you would not be impressed with that language). The other time at his Daikanyama restaurant the waiter was so keen to sell the most expensive bottle of wine (at the same time ridiculing the cheaper choice made) that he tried to make me look small in my choice of wine. In other words, a twat of a waiter. I no longer choose to go to his restaurants.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hey northlondon, totally agree about the service. Snooty waiters for sure. I think they are just trying too hard.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We have one in our neighbourhood, and it is good. And the waitresses are cute and attentive. So, ymmv.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The good and bad comments points out just how hard the restaurant business. Its only as good as the workers, and they must love their work and be rewarded appropriately (good salary) and be ready for the fight day in and out which the busenss demands. The passion of the founder, met by ambition and teamwork of the workers.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Just watched the video with his recipes on his website. He is charming, especially charmig is the ring on his ear...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There's good pizza in Japan??

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yes, there is good pizza in Japan. Go to Tonino at Shimo-Takaido. It is in between the Keio Line and Setagaya Line, so easy to find. Tony, who gave his name to the restaurant, comes from Ischia. Alternatively, go to Eifukucho. Cross the main road when you leave the station and got down the shopping street. Take the first left and you will soon come to a Pizzeria. I haven't been there for some time so it would be nice to have an update, but Massimo from Naples was the cook when I last went there. These places are always full so it is best to book first. Neither of these are chain restaurants and both serve Italian rather than American or Japanese pizza.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's just pizza, right? Not exactly brain science.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

In addition to Salvatore and Tonino, there's Pizzeria 1830. Excellent pizza baked in a wood-burning brick oven...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Norman Cook is the Pizza Man.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I only discovered Salvatore recently - surprising given the number of shops he has - but was very impressed by the pizza. He sounds like a decent man from the interview, not taking himself too seriously, which is always a good point

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I was not really impressed with the food at his restaurants.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites