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Italy and Japan casually meet in Salvatore Cuomo Café

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By CJ JUNTEREAL

ONLINE The thick, charred edges and more than generous toppings of Traditional Pan Pizza have a hearty, homemade quality.The thick, charred edges and more than generous toppings of Traditional Pan Pizza have a hearty, homemade quality

An Italian-Japanese chef seems like a rather incongruous combination. But this chef has 77 restaurants serving Italian food throughout Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Italy. The restaurants don’t serve the quirky Japanese-style Italian food found in cafés all over Japan. They serve honest-to-goodness Neapolitan pizzas, a range of pastas, and other dishes. As for the chef himself, except for a slightly Eurasian look to his features, Salvatore Cuomo is all Italian, from his accent to his loquaciousness.

And while Italian and Japanese cuisines are worlds apart in flavor, they share the same soul—a deep respect for ingredients and the rhythm of the seasons.

Chef Salvatore Cuomo drizzles olive oil on a pizza Margherita.Chef Salvatore Cuomo drizzles olive oil on a pizza Margherita

That soul was evident in every motion and word as he deftly built a pizza for us in his new Salvatore Cuomo Café at the Podium. There were no fancy moves or tossing of the crust into the air, just the economy of movement of a chef who began learning the craft of a pizzaiolo (artisan pizza maker) before he hit puberty.

“Neapolitan pizza is a very speedy one,” Cuomo explains. “We cannot go slowly when we make it because of the ingredients. We use a lot of watery items in the topping, so we work quickly so the crust does not get too soggy. The tomato sauce is just tomato, we don’t make it like others who cook it with garlic and spices. The tomatoes come from the Campania area, near Naples—not canned because the cans sometimes give a flavor difference. We get the tomatoes from one company in Modena because only they can do the special vacuum packaging. We use buffalo mozzarella, and it cannot be too dry also.

The antipasti platter offers a little bit of everything for diners to share.The antipasti platter offers a little bit of everything for diners to share

The pizza is made in a very high temperature oven. We don’t have a wood oven here, but our oven reaches a temperature of around 450 °C. To cook it at this temperature, you must have a very good knowledge of how to cook, how to balance. Look at the cheese, it is still white even if the temperature is so high.”

Less than 10 minutes from when he started, our Margherita pizza was on the table. It was puffed and charred around the edges, thin in the middle, a little bit chewy, simply topped with pure, fresh tasting tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella with the flavor of rich cream, and a restrained shower of basil. Unlike other pizzas, the basil didn’t overpower, it simply enhanced. “We want people to enjoy the crust,” Cuomo points out after we had inhaled half the pie. “That’s why it’s a little bit chewy, more like bread.”

The Mixed Meats Neaopolitan Pizza has bubbly, chewy edges and an impossibly thin crust that absorbs the flavors of the toppings IIThe Mixed Meats Neaopolitan Pizza has bubbly, chewy edges and an impossibly thin crust that absorbs the flavors of the toppings

The pizza would be the main reason to visit this new iteration of Cuomo’s eponymous restaurants. It exudes a more laid-back and approachable vibe than the Salvatore Cuomo restaurant in BGC. The menu is more casual with dishes that are fun to eat and share. It’s also more abbreviated, heavy on pizzas and pastas, and serves familiar dishes that would please anyone, making it easy to order for a big family or group.

Two styles of pizza are offered, the classic Napoli style pizza and Traditional Pan Pizza. Aside from the Margherita, which is beautifully executed, try the Mixed Meats pizza which contains porchetta, sausage, salami, and bacon. It’s like an upgraded version of a local fast food favorite. The Salsiccia, with sautéed mushrooms, sausage, basil, and smoked cheese is another favorite that takes the fast food Italian sausage and mushroom pizza of my childhood and turns it into a nuanced and delicious grown up version.

A crust of fresh herbs enhances the inherently sweet flavor of these fall-off-the-bone pork ribs.A crust of fresh herbs enhances the inherently sweet flavor of these fall-off-the-bone pork ribs

Cuomo explains that the Traditional Pan Pizza is something his grandmother used to make.

Again, it isn’t anything like the overly thick and oily crust of the fast food versions we are familiar with. Traditional Pan Pizza is made in a pan with raised edges to hold in the overflow of hearty toppings that adorn a crust that is just slightly thicker than a regular Napoli pizza crust.

The menu has three variations: Eggplant Parmigiana, Neaopolitan Ragout, which is like a meaty pasta sauce on a crust, and Affumicato, which contains smoked sausage, chicken, and ribs.

Cacio e Pepe means cheese and pepper, a deceptively simple pasta that the kitchen prepares beautifully with Pecorino and Grana Padano cheeses.Cacio e Pepe means cheese and pepper, a deceptively simple pasta that the kitchen prepares beautifully with Pecorino and Grana Padano cheese

While the temptation is always present to choose dishes that are laden with all sorts of yummy goodness, spare a thought for some of the simply named dishes on the menu. It is in those dishes that Cuomo’s Italian-Japanese soul shines through because the care with which each ingredient is chosen is reflected in the fresh, pure flavors of the dish. Take the Cacio e Pepe pasta, simply tossed with Pecorino and Grana Padano cheeses and freshly ground black pepper. It seems simple to make, but if the ingredients and technique are not excellent, the creamy melted cheese lightly coating each strand of pasta will not be achieved.

And then there are the Grilled Pork Ribs with moist, fall-off-the-bone meat crusted with fresh herbs, pink peppercorns, and garlic. These are not the sweet, sticky American BBQ ribs that everyone is familiar with. These ribs let the sweet flavor of pork shine through, enhanced by that dusting of herbs. The dish comes with roasted potatoes, but an order of rice wouldn’t go amiss.

Several varieties of local cherry tomatoes grown for Cuomo in Benguet are the star of this stunning tomato salad IISeveral varieties of local cherry tomatoes grown for Cuomo in Benguet are the star of this stunning tomato salad

The Tomato Salad is a perfect example of Cuomo’s attention to his ingredients. The tomatoes are all local—red, orange, and yellow cherry tomatoes that burst with juicy sweetness and, hidden among them, special cherry tomatoes that taste almost like chocolate when you bite into them. The salad is simply dressed with good quality balsamic vinegar and topped with paper-thin slices of onions and fennel. The raw bite of the onions and fennel contrasts with and highlight the sweetness of the tomatoes. “The tomatoes and other vegetables are from the Baguio area,” says Cuomo. “We have a Japanese supplier who grows vegetables at a very high altitude using Japanese and Korean seeds. The farms are located high up in the mountains because the higher they are, there is less volume of insects.”

Cuomo relates that when he opened his first restaurant in BGC, all the vegetables were brought in from Japan. “But it can never be the same as truly fresh local tomatoes and vegetables. The local ones, if you can make it high quality, are the best. You have quite a few locations in the Philippines that are very good. It’s just that people don’t know about them.

At a temperature of 450C, it takes less than 5 minutes for a pizza to cook.At a temperature of 450 Celsius, it takes less than five minutes for a pizza to cook

We try to work with the farmer to produce the quality we need. In the restaurant, the vegetables are served almost raw, so if the quality is not good, the dish will not be the same.”

And that, perhaps, is the heart of Salvatore Cuomo Café, the quality of the ingredients and the care with which they are prepared. It is, after all, the perfect blending of Cuomo’s Italian and Japanese heritages. The chef himself says it best. “ I live in the Philippines now, so I want my kids to eat the right ingredients. Our type of cooking is very simple. We don’t make a lot of labor. Simple is best for us, so if you don’t work a lot on the ingredients, it’s very difficult to make a good restaurant.”

Salvatore Cuomo Café is at G/F The Podium, 18 ADB Ave, Ortigas Center. www.salvatorecuomoph.com Email me at cbj2005@gmail.com or follow me on Instagram: @eatgirlmanila

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