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Italian food is the most popular foreign cuisine in Japan, and for elegant Italian fare with a Japanese twist, one can hardly do better than Scorpione. Located in the Gion neighborhood, the restaurant’s humble, non-descript façade on Hanamikoji-dori hides a calm oasis that perfectly blends the best of Japanese and Italian influences. We had passed the restaurant hundreds of times without taking notice, but finally went there upon the recommendation of a Kyoto resident.

The 125-year-old machiya (townhouse) has been dramatically restored to create a stunning backdrop for the chef’s thoughtful and inventive cuisine. Machiyas from this era frequently took the best of western influences and adapted them for Japanese living; thus, Scorpione’s ceilings are a little higher, and the rooms are a little bigger, than traditional machiyas. Past the genkan (entryway), the first floor has been converted to a small waiting area and bar, complete with a dramatic square grid floor-to-ceiling shelving unit which was lit softly from behind. In front of this, elegant ladies enjoyed lunch quietly at the bar’s massive wooden counter. The modern additions expertly matched the rugged feel and dark patina of the original hand-hewn beams, enhancing – rather than taking away from – the original structure.

We were shown to the first floor tatami-mat room, accessed through an outdoor covered walkway and past a lovely (and thoroughly traditional) garden. We had to leave our shoes at the door, and the waiter, likewise, had to do the same each time he came to and fro. Across the expansive room, tatami chairs were grouped around antique red lacquer individual tray tables. Our grouping of tables overlooked a tiny garden in the front, which had a narrow horizontal window to the street. From there, we watched the people pass by unaware, as we once were, of this hidden treasure.

Shortly after we were seated, a tiny cup of delicately flavored minestrone soup arrived, giving us an idea of what to expect: Italian food served in Kyoto kaiseki style. Next, a narrow rectangular plate arrived with bite-sized appetizers: subtly flavored mousse of marscapone and Kyoto carrot, topped with prosciutto; tender venison carpaccio topped with arugula and a tiny piece of persimmon; buri with dill and vinaigrette; terrine of sato-imo (mountain potato) and locally grown chicken; as well as chicken paté wrapped in puffed pastry, topped with mint.

Next, the primi course arrived: I had the bavetinni with puttanesca sauce, which was satisfyingly intense and robust, while my husband had the tagliatelle with ama-ebi (small sweet shrimp) in cream sauce. The ama-ebi were cooked perfectly, almost raw, and the delicate sauce was light and subtle. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and the portions were Japanese sized (perhaps only ½ a cup) and consumed in a few bites, leaving us wanting more.

For the secondi, my husband had roast duck breast with a balsamic reduction, while I enjoyed salmon with organic baby greens. The salmon was cooked just the way the Japanese like it: with seared, crispy skin and a perfectly rare interior. Again, the portions were suitably small so that we were full but comfortable.

Dessert was a delectable yuzu-flavored panna cotti which melted in our mouths, served with compote of fruit (kiwi, grapefruit and orange) soaked in grappa, which was followed by our choice of espresso or cappuccino.

Although Scorpione is a romantic restaurant, perhaps best enjoyed on an evening date, the lunch set described above was a good value at only ¥3,000. There is a different menu and price for dinner. Although we loved sitting on the floor and having views of the gardens, there is also a second floor, with the same dramatic woodwork and an equally dramatic space, with tables. Reservations are recommended.

Above: The tatami room at Scorpione, an Italian restaurant located in a handsome centuries-old machiya in Kyoto's Gion district, features individual antique lacquer tables.
Address: 381 Kiyomoto Cho
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Directions: On the west side of Hanamikoji Dori, between Shinbashi Dori and Shijo Dori
TEL: 075-525-5054
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