It’s dusk on a hot June Friday and Jesse Ito, 36, is working his sushi booth at the opening of South Street’s PHS Pop Up Garden like a master. This is no surprise as he’s been doing this since his childhood in New Jersey, usually besides his father, Masaharu “Matt” Ito. “Most chefs work at many different restaurants and absorb different things from each chef,” says Jesse. “I followed a traditional apprentice/master program, so I have not worked under any other chef.” This two-some, over New Year’s 2016, sold the family’s landmark Fuji in Haddonfield after making the decision to join forces with Stephen Simons and Dave Frank for the long-awaited Royal Sushi & Izakaya (782 S. Second Street). Philly now will see a lot more of what Ito showed off at the PHS Pop Up – his quick-paced racing hands slicing, molding and wielding knives like a villain in a Tarantino film. “We’re moving so fast, I can hardly look up,” says Ito at the PHS Pop Up. Yet, he does make eye contact with everyone who orders – an Ito family trait he’ll surely bring to the Royal when it opens soon.
After talking about foundational elements that he’s learned from his pop – how to wash dishes fast and efficiently, sticking raw eggs in his armpit while slicing cucumbers to form proper cutting posture – the young Ito makes certain that I know that he’s formed his own identity from his heritage. “I have a different aesthetic,” he says, pointing out that Royal Sushi’s nigirizushi – thin slices of raw fish over pressed vinegar-ed rice – is different than what Masaharu did at his famed, innovative Japanese-Jersey hot spots, Fuji and Sagami. “I haven’t really had time to miss Fuji,” says Jesse Ito, who quickly went into new business operational mode for Royal Sushi & Izakaya. “I’m inundated… but I do miss my customers, some of which I saw two, three, or even four times a week for the past decade.”
Does he believe Japanese diners take to the delicacy of sushi and sashimi differently than non-Japanese diners? Yes. “Japanese diners have a different palate. Not just Japanese, but Asian in general. Asian diners tend to gravitate towards texture, so items like mirugai (geoduck), awabi (abalone), namako (sea cucumber). Japanese diners really like squid, octopus (the sushi variant which has more of a chew to it), and saba (mackerel). I love saba by the way.”
Does he ever get sick of raw fish as he’s been around since he was a baby? “No way. When I get to work, I usually make a chirashi with some natto and fish. Nigirizushi is my favorite food. It’s one of the only foods where when I’m eating it I just hum in delight.”
My guess is that Philly diners will do likewise.