Ito izakaya nods to the home of pasta and bottarga in its opening menu.
October 9, 2023
Ito izakaya opens in Surry Hills, mixing up Japanese and Italian cuisines.Jiwon Kim
Japanese izakaya Ito opens in Surry Hills on Wednesday, October 11, with a smattering of Italian ingredients dotted through its menu. Just don’t mention the F-word around the head chef.
Ito’s Italian-born head chef Erik Ortolani is no fan of fusion. He believes in a gentler approach, adding the occasional Italian ingredient where the flavour profiles of the Japanese and Italian cuisines naturally meet. He points to the similarities of sashimi and crudo, and the use of ponzu and lemon.
You need to appreciate Ortolani’s childhood in northern Italy’s lake district to understand the culinary intersection he’s now speeding through. “I was always passionate about Asian food and culture. It was an escape from the homogenous environment around me.”
Ortolani trained in Italian fine-dining restaurants in Milan, moving to Australia to follow his passion for Japanese. That meant taking a step back, spending “a couple of years learning how to slice sashimi” at Cho Cho San restaurant in Potts Point, where he eventually rose to head chef.
Slow-cooked wagyu with white shimeji mushrooms, miso, and ribbon-shaped mafaldine pasta at Ito in Surry Hills.Jiwon Kim
He fine-tuned his skills in other Japanese restaurants before restaurateur Ibby Moubadder head-hunted Ortolani to open Ito, which has made the former site of Cuckoo Callay on Crown Street home.
Many of Ito’s dishes – such as the sashimi and an authentic crab dish – are respectfully created as the Japanese invented them. Others, such as a slow-cooked wagyu with white shimeji mushrooms and miso, is paired with ribbon-shaped mafaldine pasta.
Moubadder points to one of his favourites, yellowfin tuna served on bonito bread with shaved Italian bottarga: “The bottarga adds complexity. It’s a clean dish with a long finish at the back of your palate. His food is exciting, very different, very unique.”
“The Japanese have a similar roe product [like bottarga],” Ortolani says of its inclusion in the dish.
Co-founder of hospitality group ESCA, Moubadder has a stable of Sydney restaurants that include Nour and Aalia, and used architect Matt Darwon to create Ito. “I loved what Matt did with Toko restaurant (in Surry Hills). It still looked good after 15 years.”
Inside Ito izakaya in Surry Hills.Kiwon Kim
Ito is a bright, funky space with leather furnishings and bold colours that’s been opened up to a small park and Crown Street. “It fits 85 inside and 25 out, and where the coffee pick-up used to be at Cuckoo Callay, we’ve created a little raw bar with four stools,” Moubadder says.
And the Ito name? The izakaya is named after Ito Mancio, the Japanese Jesuit who travelled to Rome as part of a diplomatic mission in the 1580s.
Open lunch Wed-Sun, dinner daily, 413-415 Crown Street, Surry Hills, itorestaurant.com