Itameshi: Iconic Italian Food with a Japanese Twist

  • 3 min read
Itameshi: Iconic Italian Food with a Japanese Twist

Like much of the world, Japan has a fascination with Europe—particularly Italy. Walking the streets of Meguro City in Tokyo, you can even wander into La Vita, a shopping district modeled after Venice complete with arching bridges and gondolas floating in the waterways. But what Japan has embraced most about Italy is its food. In fact, there are an estimated 20,000 Italian restaurants in Tokyo alone!

Itameshi, a phrase that combines Italy and the Japanese word for meal, is a category of fusion foods that first rose to popularity in the 1990s. While more traditional Italian dishes such as spaghetti and pizza have graced the menus of cafes across the country since the 1920s, itameshi exemplifies how these classic foods have been adapted to local tastes. After the economic bubble burst in the 1980s, people in Japan were looking for affordable yet delicious food. The high-priced French food that was previously all the rage fell out of favor. To sustain their business, many chefs turned to Italian food, which was viewed as a delicious cheap eat. These classically trained Japanese chefs struck the perfect balance with the resulting itameshi. The familiar flavors borrowed from Japanese cuisine appealed to the older crowd while younger diners appreciated the sense of foreign flair. 

Itameshi: Iconic Italian Food with a Japanese Twist

Pasta is a key player in the typical itameshi restaurant with kitchens turning out a wide variety of “wafu pasta,” meaning Japanese-style pasta. Many dishes lean heavily on Japan’s love of seafood, with mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and shirasu (whitebait) being popular additions to cream-laden spaghetti. Other offerings include reinterpretations of existing Italian dishes, although they may be unrecognizable to some. One such reinterpretation is carbonara, which deviates from the typical pancetta, parmesan, and eggs to include instead copious amounts of cream and a topping of raw egg yolk and vegetables. However, the most infamous, and perhaps offensive to Italians, is the naporitan. This Japanese creation is beloved in its home country, but often causes others to balk. It features spaghetti coated in a tangy ketchup-based sauce tossed with sauteed onions, mushrooms, green peppers, and the piece de resistance, slices of Japanese sausages similar to hot dogs.

Pasta may be a mainstay item, but it is not the only one. Another beloved itameshi item is doria. While a purely Japanese culinary creation, it prominently features Italian flavors. Reminiscent of risotto, doria consists of layers of rice, bechamel, cheese, tomato sauce, meat, and vegetables baked into individual dishes and served bubbling.

Itameshi: Iconic Italian Food with a Japanese Twist

And what would Italian food be without pizza? Contrary to typical pizza, however, wafu pizza includes intriguing toppings such as mentaiko, potato, mayo, teriyaki chicken, corn, seaweed, shrimp, and even miso.

For those seeking a healthier option, there’s always salad. Nama ham salad is a popular dish featuring thin ribbons of dry-aged prosciutto crudo draped over heaps of lettuce and cherry tomatoes and dusted with parmesan.

Finally, no meal is complete without dessert and Japanese flavors of gelato are the perfect ending to your fusion fix. Unique flavors like roasted green tea, sweet potato, black sesame, and even soy sauce are sure to take your tastebuds on an adventure.

Next time you’re in Japan, shift from ramen and sushi to pasta and pizza for a taste of this fascinating fusion. 


About the author:  

Nadine Lindskog

Nadine Lindskog
Nadine first became interested in Japan and Japanese culture after working with an exchange program at her university. After hearing so many wonderful things from the exchange students she worked with she was longing for a chance to see Japan for herself. That opportunity came to her in the form of the JET program where she spent 5 years on a small island in the beautiful prefecture of Okinawa. While living in this very rural community of just under 1,300 people she was lucky to experience a glimpse into some of Okinawa’s unique traditions and culture. In her free time, she traveled the main island of Japan as well as eastern Asia, seeking out the most delicious foods and exciting experiences. She currently resides in the United States but hopes to return to Japan in the future.


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