IN the kitchen is the Italian chef, front of house is his Filipina wife, and behind it all is a love story.
“The chef is my husband,” revealed Carol Veronesi, who sat tending the cash register, when I asked for the chef’s name. The first time I saw her, it was a busy Friday night in their little restaurant Va Bene Pasta Deli, with a group of 12 squeezed by a wall, four couples on dates, and a group of six that had with them no less than the lady who introduced al dente pasta to Metro Manila, Margarita Fores.
Sweat beads trickled down Carol’s forehead as she met our group outside their little space on the second floor of the concessionaire’s area of the Petron gas station on the corner of Edsa and Dasmarinas Village. Our reservation was for 9:30 but we had arrived at 8:45 so we attempted a negotiation. Frustratingly, no one was budging from their seats and a bottle of red wine even made its way from someone’s car to one of the tables, so we were gently turned down.
The wait is hell if it happens to you. Outside Va Bene, at this time of the year, whether you come for lunch or dinner, the heat is unbearable. Relaxed hair will inevitably become buhaghag (frizzy). The only consolation is that you may sit on the four-seater bar just outside their door and have their not-too-sweet iced tea. Eyebrows will meet, cheeks will flush, patience will run short. Especially when the servers announce, “There’s no more pizza available.”
But tempers will be tempered once you step inside and get a taste of air-conditioning. And all may be forgiven once you are served and get a taste of the chef’s creations.
There are some items that will make you forgive the setting entirely. These dishes make you zone out and enter that place in your head and heart that triggers good times. One is the arugula salad, whose touches of balsamico and not-so-sweet mangoes are just enough to temper the bitter chill of the arugula. Another is the stuffed portobello, punctuated by tomato flavors but served amongst lettuce and, once again, a bit of arugula. This is one place where bitter is best.
For the pasta, the tagliolini and the canelloni will warm the heart that has turned cold in the heat. The tagliolini is very subtly accented with truffle oil as its cream introduces itself to your mouth. The canelloni, meanwhile, pricks your palate in stacatto beats with the tomato and smoked ham.
The chef, Massimo Veronesi, formerly of Mi Piace at the Peninsula Manila, clearly appreciates structure in his dish. First, the basic canvas of greens, pasta or pizza dough. Then a second layer: balsamico or cream sauce or tomato cream sauce. Then the big ornaments: mangoes or portobello mushrooms. Then the accents that make all the difference in the world: capers, smoked ham, wild nuts. The Virgin Mare ordered the gnocchi but observed, “It’s not the gnocchi that does it for this one, it’s the wild nuts!”
Don’t expect impeccable service, as declared in some self-descriptions of the place. Crowds have been flocking to the tiny place—both for the chef and the restaurant’s novelty—that sometimes a drink, a chair, or an order may take a while. Don’t expect space either. Seats may be close enough to eavesdrop on the next table’s chismis. Pizza isn’t always a given. Two visits in a row saw their pizza not available. And don’t expect fancy fare. You’re at a Petron gas station after all.
“We didn’t really expect to become a restaurant,” Carol explained over the counter when I casually asked why they chose Petron, of all places. “We were set out to be just a take-out place. We used to have just two tables. When the budget increases and we’ve trained more people, we will expand,” she added.
In the meantime, do expect great pasta. “No boxed pasta!” they proudly state—and deliver. The love story is a love for fresh pasta—that is definitely va bene (it fits well). •
Va Bene Pasta Deli. 2nd Level, Petron Gas Station at the corner of Edsa and Dasmariñas Village (A. Arnaiz Ave.). Tel. (632) 556-9442, 904-6063, 0917-345-6869. Reservations not required but necessary. Closed on Mondays. Major credit cards accepted. Delivery available through 212-1212. Limited seats and limited parking. Not wheelchair accessible.