I thought that we needed a new foreign restaurant franchise like a hole in the head; such was the saturation of the Manila market.
Last week I started to feel that maybe a hole in the head wasn’t such a bad idea, after all; trepanning, as it is known, is sometimes necessary to relieve pressure inside the skull. And die-hard junkies for whom no thrill is too extreme see recreational trepanning as the ultimate frontier of mind-altering activities, which it may well be since one might be left with no mind to alter.
Into the mulch of a stagnant food scene came galloping Salvatore Cuomo to the rescue. I’ve tried to find out as much as I could about him, but my browser kept suggesting that I wanted Salvatore Ferragamo instead. So, the search engine algorithms have now started throwing my way ads for expensive shoes.
That’s actually not too far off, because the sort of person who can afford Salvatore Cuomo, or treat it like “the Italianni’s of our generation,” would be the type who would also be interested in luxury dress shoes.
As far as I can understand, Salvatore Cuomo is Italian pizza (Neapolitan, to be specific)—by way of Japan, where the eponymous chef built an empire of authentic pizza that caters to Japanese tastes.
The East Asian influence is also probably why all the waitstaff roars “Buongiono!” whenever a customer enters, the way everyone shouts “Irrashaimase!” when one walks into a Japanese restaurant.
An authentic Italian experience would be for them to look at you from head to toe when you come in and then feign ignorance of your presence.
On a Sunday lunch, the place was empty at 11 a.m. when we arrived, but all the tables, even the ones outside being sprinkled by a light rain, had a reserved sign on them.
The space, I must say, is a nice one—open and airy, with a good view across the room and of the action at the bar and the wood-fired oven in the corner.
By noon the place filled up, mostly with families, with one or two familiar faces. It really was like the grown-up version of
Italianni’s, which was where we all used to go when it was cool in the 1990s, except that most of us are now pot-bellied and peering at the menu through spectacles.
Let’s get this out of the way: the pizza is really quite terrible. It’s not just a travesty to Italianni’s, it’s a travesty to the very idea of pizza.
And I’m not a pizza purist. I don’t mind the carb overload of bread smeared with tomato-flavored slop that Pizza Hut sells by the slice. I love Shakey’s pizza for what it is, a strange Filipino hybridization of a long-defunct American chain that serves up those greasy crackers with meat and ranch dressing. And New York pizza is another beast altogether.
But speaking of ’90s nostalgia, the second best authentic pizza in town used to be served at L’Opera at Greenbelt—just the right thickness, the right texture of friabile that the Italians do so well. A proper pizza shouldn’t be too large; nor should it have an overload of topping.
The best pizza in Manila used to be made by an Italian friend of mine, with type “00” Italian flour but also Gold Medal all-purpose flour when necessary, local water and yeast, using nothing more exotic than a pizza stone, a wooden peel, and whatever ingredients were at hand.
I continued to make my own pizza at home even after he moved back to Europe.
After years of not cooking, I tried my hand at it again but failed; I spent months trying to get back the knack. I attribute it to age—as a man gets older, the dough doesn’t rise the way it used to.
It strikes me as odd that Salvatore Cuomo specializes in pizza but can’t serve up a decent one.
But the good news is that it makes up for that with everything else. We had a seafood in tomato cream sauce fettuccine that I still think about to this day. If you haven’t tried it yet, get yourself there and order it, no sharing. It comes with two small lobsters, split down the middle and oozing with roe.
The fettuccine was cooked to perfection, al dente, but not chewy or brittle.
We ordered the yakitori, which was excellent, and a generous platter of homemade sausages.
Other tables seemed to be enjoying some sort of seafood stew, but we didn’t get the memo that this was the thing to order at Salvatore’s—so we’ll be back for that.
In other words, it’s a pretty good restaurant overall, as long as you stay away from the pizza.
Because the crowd that used to frequent Italianni’s now has children, there is an extensive wine list that includes some fairly impressive bottles, as well as designer sake running to five-digit prices, and cocktails that come in tall, phallic glasses.
These will add considerably to the already not-inconsiderable bill. These are steep prices for food that’s mostly flour in various guises.
As postscript, you might be wondering where the best pizza in Manila is now. I don’t know anymore, but my favorite, only somewhat inauthentic pizza of the moment is the sourdough-based one at Dean and Deluca’s.
Salvatore Cuomo, G/F, Uptown Parade, 9th Ave. corner 38th St. Bonifacio Global City; tel. 9463072