Is Wafu cuisine the next big thing?

The culinary techniques and flavors from Japanese and Italian cultures combine to drive this emerging cuisine. But don’t call it fusion.
Pork ragu with ricotta cavatelli
Ginger soy pork ragu with sesame ricotta cavatelli; photo courtesy of Kikkoman

For eight months, Chef Robbie Felice has been cooking Wafu cuisine at pastaRAMEN, a speakeasy-style restaurant that pops up in secret locations around New Jersey. There are two seatings a night at the exclusive spot, where 10 customers at each pay $317 per person for a 10- to 13-course omakase tasting menu prepared by the James Beard-nominated chef.

Most are intrigued by the secrecy of the event and the chef’s cred, but don’t know much about Wafu until they sit down to dinner.

The cuisine doesn’t have a lot of name recognition in the United States, but it’s pretty well known in Japan and Italy, where chefs have combined the flavors, ingredients and techniques from both cultures to create unique dishes. Felice is on a mission to build a passionate Wafu following here.

“I didn’t just make it up and smash together two concepts,” he said. “There are only a handful of restaurants [in the U.S.] that are doing Wafu authentically like it’s done in Japan and Italy.”

At first, Felice just invited friends to the tasting, which is held in closed restaurants, salons and even apartments every Monday and Tuesday night. Friends told friends, and word spread. You can only get in by referral or an occasional Instagram invitation. Those who succeed receive a password and are then texted the popup’s location the morning of the dinner.

What can guests expect once they sit down?

“There are no real guidelines,” said Felice. “Imagine going to Japan and having a Japanese chef prepare Italian food. You can use any Japanese or Italian techniques, flavor profiles and ingredients and blend them. The main rule is you can’t really tell if it’s Japanese or Italian.”

Chef Robbie Felice

Chef Robbie Felice

Although Japanese chefs are more meticulous and Italian chefs more rustic, he said, both strive for dishes with lots of umami. Ingredients such as miso, soy sauce, mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are all umami-rich.

Felice describes a porcini-rubbed wagyu beef as one of his “hit dishes” that can never leave the menu. “We import the Wagyu from Japan and dry-age it for 45 to 55 days, losing about 30% of its weight,” he said. “Then we rub the outside with a mix of porcini mushrooms, juniper, chili flakes and salt, sear it and serve it with a Japanese sweet potato puree flavored with Parmigiano-Reggiano and aged balsamic vinegar.”

For a Wafu-style pork ragu with sesame ricotta cavatelli, he soaks the pork in a soy-ginger brine, then braises it, reducing the liquid and thickening it with a white miso soy butter accented with sesame oil. Sesame and ricotta complement each other in the cavatelli to reflect both Japanese and Italian elements. Toasted soy crumbles complete the dish, subbing for Italian bread crumbs.

Along with the multi-course meal, which includes two mini desserts, guests get a complementary curated pairing of three sakes. Two Wafu-style cocktails, incorporating ingredients such as Japanese spirits and Italian amaros, are available for purchase.

Felice, who also operates Italian restaurants Viaggio Ristorante and Osteria Crescendo in New Jersey, is taking pastaRAMEN to Miami in January. When he and his team come back north, they plan to launch the Wafu speakeasy-style popup in New York City.

“I’ve always wanted to stir the pot in the big city and pastaRAMEN is allowing me to pursue my dream,” he said.

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