The pleasant smell of freshly baked pizzas fill the air as skiers and snowboarders glided down the gentle slopes of Iwappara. A well-known pizzeria located on the snowy mountains in the middle of Yuzawa city in Niigata prefecture, Pizzeria La Locanda del Pittore is a central piece of the local decor. With a history line starting 37 years back, the place is a staple in the books of holidaymakers and the locals hungry for authentic pizzas.

Under the clear night sky in March, the Nagaoka Review team braved the snow-covered streets to get to the only Italian restaurant in the area mentioned in the Michelin Guide (a.k.a. the red book). No stranger to the city, Nagaoka Review’s Michelle Lim would frequently invite her friends and colleagues to this restaurant for great pizzas, chatter, and fun. Interestingly, the Italian restaurant is well-known amongst many Japan residents, especially foreign residents living in Japan looking for great pizzas and other authentic Italian food.

Italian Cuisine: The Pizzas 🍕

Thin crusted pizzas are baking in a woodfired oven as diners chat away happily in the relaxing restaurant on a cold wintery night. Restaurant staff moved around gracefully, recommending good wines to pair with guests’ selection of meals while the chef skillfully slice their ever-popular pizzas before being served to their guests.

To the members of Pizzeria La Locanda del Pittore, pizzas are not just dishes – they are a celebration of the human senses. The sight of friendly staff serving the delectable pizza with generous amount of topping whilst the smell of freshly baked pizza permeates the air. The sheer warmth of the pizza in one’s hand as they enjoy the burst of flavors from freshly sourced ingredients. And the sound of family and friends savoring every bite. With such heightened senses, your pizza experience would never be the same again.

As the word “pizzeria” suggests in the name of the restaurant, they are famous for a variety of pizzas. Among some of the highly recommended pizzas by both the staff and guests are the Bismarck with high-quality Bismarck ham, or even the Miyocono dessert pizza with oranges and whipped cream for the children or the young at heart!

The basic menu of Pittore. Image courtesy of Pittore.

What makes the pizzas served here so great, one might wonder. Besides the woodfire oven, dough and fresh ingredients, there is another important criterion: the human aspect. All members of the pizzeria are first taught to make pizzas and operate the oven.

The Genius Behind Pittore 👨‍🍳

It was indeed a chance encounter for the Nagaoka Review’s team to have met the owner of Pizzeria La laconda del pittore. Chatting with the team in a mixture of Japanese and Italian, Isao-san is truly a force to be reckoned with in the Italian culinary scene in Japan.

Isao-san, the owner of Pittore posing with the woodfire oven in the Iwappara restaurant. Image taken by author.

Hailing from Tokyo, Isao is no stranger to traveling abroad. About four decades ago, he visited India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and some parts of Africa, to name a few. These were destinations that Japanese people would not have dreamt of visiting during the time. It was also incidentally on his trip to Karachi, Pakistan that he met a group of Italians that started the whole idea.

Soon after the encounter, Isao made up his mind to visit Italy. When he set foot on Italy, he fell in love with the place and decided to live and work around Lake Como. After getting married, he took his wife to Italy to experience the life he enjoys in Italy. And the rest was history.

The Restaurant 🍽️

Pizzeria La Laconda del Pittore was opened 37 years ago next to Iwappara Ski Resort in Yuzawa. While it used to only be opened in Winter, the restaurant is currently open all seasons. There seems to always be a long line forming before the restaurant opens, especially in Winter, over the weekends and public holidays.

Left: Restaurant on a sunny Summer day. Image by the author.
Right: Restaurant on a Winter night. Image via

Fast-forward decades later, the company manages 5 Pittore sister stores. Two are situated in Yuzawa city, one being Paolina Nakazato and another called Alpina Yuzawa Kogen that is accessible via cable car. They also have one outlet in Karuizawa as well as another in Toyama Kansui Park. Isao runs the restaurant in Bali but returned to Japan during the pandemic. He was already planning on returning to Bali when the team met him at the restaurant.

Alpina is situated on Yuzawa Kogen. Image by the author.

In the past, the company used to have a franchise at Lake Toya, Hokkaido. About 20 years ago, the 38th G8 Summit was held at Lake Toya, Hokkaido. A few members of the organizers took the opportunity to visit Pittore in Yuzawa to personally ask if there was a possibility of opening a branch at Lake Toya.

While the license has just ended, Isao noted that the company has gained extensive learning through the opportunity. Some new business opportunity ideas emerged from this experience. But the most important criteria Isao stressed upon were very simple:

We need to focus on the importance of maintaining the atmosphere of the restaurant, as well as finding people who are committed to creating and delivering the same atmosphere.

Isao TSUJIOwner of Pittore

The Most Popular Dish 🍲

Hands down, the Quattro Formaggi pizza is the highlight of the restaurant. The restaurant has served over 25,000 pizzas, as indicated on the “certificate” issued when customers order one.

To gamify the experience, the company started issuing the “certificate” to customers 7 years ago. When customers collect five, they could redeem one Quattro Formaggi for free. This pizza happens to also be Isao’s favorite.

The 25475th Quattro Formaggi and the “certificate” issued to the author and team on the 28th March 2021.

The Italian Connection 🧑🏻‍🤝‍🧑🏽

Isao shared his experience when he first started working in Italy. As with every story, the beginning would always be challenging.

“At first, the Italians were not trusting of me as a Japanese. They were worried I would copy and steal their recipe and were always keeping an arm’s length away from me. While I was a little sad, I also understood why they thought of me that way. Japan was seen as a country of industrial imitators, lacking genuine creativity and authenticity. It pushed me to want to prove myself more and earn their trust.”

And earned the Italians’ trust Isao did. Fast forward years later, Isao found himself accepted into the community. Not only did he learn the Italian way of life, Isao started getting to know what goes on in their minds.

“The Italians I work with, they started sharing with me their true feelings and what they thought about people and different cultures.”

Why Yuzawa? 🗻

When asked why Isao chose to open the restaurant in Yuzawa instead of Tokyo, he laughed. “Government regulation”, was his reply. Back in the day, open fire was not permitted in Tokyo. The restaurant would only open in Winter as Isao and his wife would work in Italy in the summer.

Isao managing the firewood used in the oven. Image courtesy of Pittore

Operation-wise, Yuzawa made a lot of sense as well. The restaurant needs a lot of wood to fire up the woodfire oven. Here, the company receives two consignments of firewood in May and in Fall. There is also much available space to store the firewood.

“By the way, all members of the restaurant can chop firewood”, he chips in.

Variety is Their Middle Name 🥕🍕🍝🥩🍅

While Pizzeria La Locanda del Pittore is well-known for pizzas, they also serve other great meals such as home-made Gnocchi Gorgonzola, pasta, steak and risotto. They also offer great salads incorporating the freshest local ingredients. On some days, you might find fruits or never-seen-before squash incorporated into the salad.

Salad served in summer, incorporating locally sourced squash. Image by the author.

If great food and a good selection of wine is not enough, the desserts are also a must-try.

Why "La Locanda del Pittore" ? 🇮🇹

In Italian, Il Pittore means “the painter”. It is also the name of the restaurant in Italy where Isao-san did his apprenticeship in his youth, hence the inspiration. The idea of adopting the name is not a foreign concept to him as it is slightly similar to the Japanese traditional practice called the ‘noren-wake’ (暖簾分け). The apprentice would take the name of the store or the master where they learned the trade to be part of their new business name.

La Locanda del Pittore means “The Painter’s Inn”, reflecting on the original business model offering accommodation along with the restaurant. But in present times, the company focuses more on food and drinks of Italian inspiration.

The restaurant is currently run by Takahashi Kazuhiko and they are still seeing a steady stream of customers amidst the pandemic. The Nagaoka Review team had many unsuccessful attempts in the past at reserving a table due to high demand and social distancing measures taken, but the stars must have been well-aligned for the team to have the chance encounter with Isao-san, the owner of Pizzeria La Loconda del Pittore at Iwappara.
The restaurant was listed in the 2020 Le Guide Michelin in Niigata prefecture. It has also received rave reviews from both first-time visitors and regulars of the restaurant, especially from the international community living in Japan.
Extended appreciation to Professor Cristian Vlad for spearheading the interesting conversation with Isao-san in both Japanese and Italian and Professor Ana Damaschin for the Italian-English translation.
Main image courtesy of Il Pittore
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Michelle Lim

Michelle Lim

Creative Consultant, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise