On the surface, Ito appears quintessentially Japanese: a tidy, symmetrical facade, ceiling treatments inspired by shoji paper partitions, cotton kimonos hanging on the walls. But a pasta menu that combines aglio e olio spaghetti with togarashi and spanner crab, and Wagyu mafaldine with shimeji mushrooms tells a different story.
“At first, we wanted to open a traditional Japanese restaurant,” head chef Erik Ortolani tells Broadsheet. “But I’m Italian, and it felt more appropriate for me to incorporate elements from my heritage rather than copy recipes.”
Ortolani honed his knowledge of Japanese cuisine heading up the Cho Cho San kitchen in Potts Point, before partnering with hospitality group ESCA (Nour, Aalia) to open the new izakaya in Surry Hills, where he celebrates the points of connection between Japanese and Italian cuisines.
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“It’s not a fusion restaurant,” Ortolani says. “But I think there are a lot of similarities both in the regionality of the food, the produce and the way we cook. It’s very simple, straightforward cooking, not a lot of ingredients or layering.”
The shiitake okonomiyaki is a good example. Ortolani’s version of the egg-based dish is made with pecorino and black pepper, and finished with pickled ginger. The tako-tori with ‘nduja riffs on grilled yakitori skewers, delivering alternating textures of confit octopus and confit chicken. “The pairing of octopus or cuttlefish with spicy pork sausages, chorizo or ‘nduja is really common in Italy and Spain. I thought adding the spicy kick made the dish more interesting.”
Although izakaya menus typically consist of snacks to be eaten while you drink, Ito’s menu reads more like a restaurant’s, with a raw bar, entrees, mains and sides. There’s yellowfin tuna with bonito bread and punchy salted bottarga, Wagyu rump cap with black garlic puree and yuzu kosho jus, and a dumpling dish reminiscent of north Italian agnolotti.
“We braise duck in master stock and wrap it in wonton skins before cooking the dumplings in ponzu brown butter. The ponzu cuts through the fattiness of the filling, and sansho peppers bring it all together. It’s my favourite dish.”
Located in the space that formerly housed Cuckoo Callay, Ito’s inviting fit-out is faithful to pared-back Japanese decor. There are four seats along the raw bar for an omakase-style experience, but most of the 100 seats are located upstairs. Sea-glass-green lamps light up timber tables lining leather banquettes, making for an ideal spot to order a platter of Sydney rock oysters topped with lemonade fruit and sake – or settle in for a full meal.
“We wanted to keep a very Japanese feel but make the menu open. I’m used to not sticking to the recipe but instead adapting to what’s available. We want to keep it very dynamic and fresh and become a spot for locals to try something new all the time.”
413–415 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Mon & Tue 5.30pm–9pm
Wed & Thu midday–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9pm
Fri & Sat midday–2.30pm, 5.30pm–10pm
Sun midday–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9pm