Ceasar Salad My Way
By Gene Gonzalez
Many often try to understand why major cities have so many Italian restaurants that are well-rated or best to be kept as secrets. Among them are New York and Bangkok, which have an astonishing number of Italian eateries that are higher compared to major cities in Italy.
In the Philippines, the popularity of Italian food and recipes is easy to understand. The straightforward, robust flavors and manner of eating are compatible with the Pinoy tenets of malasa and malinamnam. We share a lot in common, like the use of tomato, garlic, herbs, and their infusions in addition to fermented flavors such as anchovies, wine, and rustic cheeses.
The extreme popularity of Italian cuisine is visible in three restaurants at The Podium in Ortigas. My top choice among them would be La Vita, and in my three visits there, I would always leave with a feeling of comfort that the items I chose on the menu strongly reflected the great experience and knowledge of its chef, Maurizio Gibillini, who is no stranger to the Philippine food scene.
Chef Maurizio Gibilini
In fact, during the short discussions we had in between courses and managing the busy kitchen, he seemed to appreciate that I knew he was the first expat chef to open an Italian restaurant at The Podium many years ago. It was called Pagliacci. Now, he is back but is more hands on with La Vita, which is his project with famed restaurateur couple Jackson and Alma Go (I had a chance to work for them, a decade ago. It was for their buffet chain).
I’ve worked summers and learned from the Italian-American chef of one of the first pizzerias, so Italian cuisine has always been close to my heart. Knowing that Maurizio’s style would not veer away from the classic, I first tried out his pizza from the oven he brought over from Italy. I like varying textures in my pizza, so I told the waiter to keep mine in the oven about less than half a minute longer for a crisp bottom. The acid test had to be a Margarita, the simple cheese, tomato, and basil combination. Since I was alone at that time, I told our chef that I would be back to dine and sample items on his menu, as well as his chosen wines from the wine list.
Pizza Burratta with Arugila
I did go back with more company and I liked two of his choices that paired well with my dinners there. One was a Primitivo de Salento, which gave off abundant fruit and spice. I liked the idea that I was drinking grapes enjoyed during the time when Alexander the Great conquered what we now know as Croatia and Bosnia. On the other hand, the wine Maurizio strongly recommended was a Sicilian Nero D’Avola that was similar to the black and red forest berries. This, too, went well with our orders. The choices of such charming wines on the temperature-controlled display, with our chef’s approval, were quite passable in terms of the price range and preference of Filipinos.
In other dinners I had, I was happy with these dishes. The Burrata Con Pomodori with Arugula Pizza is a must-have since the creamy centered cheese would blend well with the nutty flavors of arugula and its spicy wasabi-like and leafy flavors.
On the other hand, Maurizio’s version of Caesar salad was a wonderful interpretation of the Romaine lettuce classic. It had the additional complexity of dill that cut the richness of the homemade mayonnaise and the little caviar spheres that created tiny bursts of flavor as they popped on one’s palate. Lastly, the Brasato di Agnello Al Vino, or slow braised lamb in red wine and tomato sauce, was braised to fork tenderness and served with grilled vegetables with mashed potato.
Nero D’ Avola
For steaks, I would go with the cuts on offer such as the rib eye or strip loin because the chef would never recommend the tenderloin (Filleto di Vari Modi). So, I would recommend the Ala Gorgonzola since the creaminess of this cheese pairs well with beef. Also, the creamy, buttery characters of gorgonzola cheese were a good combination with the caramelized exterior of a precisely cooked Pappardelle alla Crema Tartufo with Porcini Cream. The truffle oil also complemented the richness of eggs in the homemade pasta, which is why I think this is one of the better versions around.
For dessert, I would suggest Crema di Mascarpone (It’s not on the menu and is only a backup dessert when the chef would run out of his special tiramisu). The more modern Crema di Mascarpone has a nice touch of raspberry. What I miss most from Maurizio’s desserts is the gelato he used to serve in Pazzo, a coffeeshop at Rockwell. Perhaps one or two flavors would not hurt the busy kitchen, especially since ice cream makers are very compact now.
While writing this review, I suddenly have the uncontrollable urge to indulge myself with another serving of his Pasta Fresca, as I have been dreaming about it over the past few days!
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