BY POLINA KUZNETSOVA
At Rokko, a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Rome, the little glass doors open to unveil a cozy room. There are colorful cat figures beside the steps, which welcome everyone who enters here. On the left is sushi bar, where chef Takehisa works on his fish masterpieces. Finally, a female figure in pink kimono appears in the distance, greeting the customers with a kind smile. This is Hiroko Sasaki, the owner of this Japanese oasis, lost in the stone jungles of antique Roman streets. Hiroko san is a truly inspiring person. She’s petite and delicate, yet possesses a fierce determination and intelligence in running a successful restaurant business despite the high taxes and rent. It is not easy to preserve the authenticity of the original Japanese cuisine in the Western world, where customers are only interested in sushi. Nevertheless, Hiroko refuses to suppress the personality of her restaurant and carefully maintains Japanese traditions in Rokko. Rokko has a classical Japanese interior. The light brown dining room is decorated with bamboo and the wooden fan lanterns. The lights are slightly faded, which makes the atmosphere intimate and homey. A slim figure of Hiroko’s mother exits the kitchen with a big smile on her face. On my last visit she had a bowl of salmon and potato croquettes in her hands, which she cooked just for me. Every time I look in her lively eyes I can’t stop reminding myself that I have an honor to be fed by such a legendary woman.
In fact, Hiroko’s parents marked an important day in both Italian and Japanese history. The couple opened the first Japanese restaurant, along with a Japanese supermarket and a boutique, in Italy in the 1960’s. As Hiroko recalls, Italians of that time weren’t familiar with Japanese cuisine. Politicians, actors and Japanese diplomats were their only clients. Today Hiroko makes sure her family tradition continues to live within the walls of this little Japan in the heart of Rome. You can see its lively spirit here and there – the porcelain Japanese dolls, which she got from her grandmother, the colorful fans, cute kitty calendars and wooden carved creatures. There is even a Japanese zen garden in one of the dining rooms. The sounds of its streaming water in symphony with the flute melodies brings one to the country of the rising sun. Rokko itself is named after a mountain in the province of Kobe, where her father was born.
Although Hiroko was born in Rome, she grew up a true daughter of Japan, as she always followed Japanese traditions, and even got her bachelor degree in international business in Tokyo’s university. There, she learned an essential lesson. “In Tokyo you can’t just stand there and look at the sky. You should flow with the crowd wherever you are – the pedestrian cross or at school. You should adjust to the pace,” Hiroko says, reflecting back on her college years. Perfectionism, a common trait of the Japanese mentality, can be seen in everything Hiroko and her team do. Quality in everything is an essential part of Rokko’s authenticity: famous in Japan, chef Takehisa Haraguchi is a master in his craft and creates his signature recipes for the Japanese and Italian clients. Hiroko always encourages her clients to try something traditional and particular. There you can find dishes like gyoza – Japanese dumplings with vegetables and meat, variety of seaweed salads with dressings created by chef, rice noodles or soups. Each dish is made with love and genuine warmth and this is what makes Rokko stand out. Sometimes it is not easy to run the business in Italy. “Making Italians understand the concept of authentic Japanese cuisine is still challenge. In fact, even sushi became popular only in the last decade,” says Hiroko, “In Japan there is a culture of eating out. Everybody eats out in Japan. Here families prefer to eat at home.” Nevertheless, Hiroko keeps going. She creates a friendly, cozy atmosphere for each client. Whether Italian or Japanese, she treats each of them as if they were her guests, who stepped in her blooming abode, full of delicious smells and inviting sounds.
Hiroko and her family are the type of people you only meet once in a lifetime. Japanese people do not always show their emotions, but once you get to know them better, they will become your true friends, let you see their world and invite you to explore it together.