By Dedette Sison Santiago
Imagine my surprise when one evening I received this SMS from a dear friend Amy:
“Show of hands, please. Who’s available for dinner on Saturday? My treat at Pizzeria Toscano beside COLF. “Huh? A pizzeria near COLF? COLF is the Community of Learners Foundation, a private school for boys and girls in Valencia Hills, New Manila.
I never thought there was a homey, little restaurant amid a row of condos in that area where one could have a nice, quiet dinner. Once you get there, you’re in for a treat.
Our dinner began with a thin crust pizza called Quatro Formaggi, a pesto-based pizza with four kinds of cheeses: mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, cream cheese and gorgonzola. Simple and tasty. There was also Salsiccia Pizza with generous toppings of Italian sausages, mushrooms and onions. And quite good was Pasta Polpette with Italian meatballs, fresh basil and sundried tomatos. We also shared the traditional Puttanesca with anchovies, capers and black olives. Then Braised Lamb, a house specialty, pre-cooked for over three hours in Italian wine, herbs and spices, was served piping hot with marble potatos.
Angel Aban and her partner Anthony Parungao are the proud owners of this little Tuscan-inspired restaurant that sits only 25 people. The décor is very minimalist with yellow and white lighting, a display of assorted Italian wines on a shelf and walls adorned with framed pictures of Hollywood celebrities (which to me is the focal point of the restaurant) eating or cooking pasta. The small countertop is white, drawing attention to the tiny kitchen where you can see all the cooking. All these, Aban intimates, is a labor of love. Together with their children, the walls were painted painstakingly and the second-hand chairs and tables refurbished to suit the ambience that they wanted for the restaurant. “We wanted it simple yet cozy where it’s more than a place to eat but a place where one could relax and just enjoy a conversation.”
Both Aban and Parungao are very serious about their “baby” and Italian cooking notwithstanding the fact that they both have zero experience in this field. “We both love to cook and to eat. We cook for our family and friends and we always compare notes, challenge each other’s cooking,” Aban laughs “When this unit which was formerly a bodega of computer paraphernalia was offered to us we thought it was the most opportune time to open a restaurant no matter how small,” Parungao interjects. “We wanted to fulfill this dream of having a resto and it would be good for an experience,” he continues.
Not content with their experience in home cooking, the couple took culinary courses in Amici de Don Bosco in Makati before they ventured into the restaurant scene. “Amici is one of our favorite Italian restaurants and chef Giorgio who gave us our Italian cooking lessons was very helpful and encouraging,” Aban says. Since then they are constantly testing, tweaking and improving their recipes and menus based on their friends’ and customers’ comments and suggestions. “One time, a Japanese customer came to us and ordered a codfish pizza. We were puzzled and explained that he must have been confused with the menu,” Aban continues. But what an idea it was! Parungao decided to make a new concoction and now he has Bacalla Pizza, a Mediterranean—inspired pizza with salted codfish, tomatos and onions. “This is one thing we like about Tuscan cuisine. It allows you to be more creative with the most basic and tasty ingredients,” states Aban.
The menu is steeped in Tuscan influence with rich sauces and a depth of flavors. A popular dish called Bacalla alla Livornese (salted codfish) is another hit on the menu, the recipe of which originated from the coastal area of Tuscany known as Livorno. Similarly, pasta dishes like Salsa di Norcino flavor-packed with smoked sausage, button mushrooms and with a hint of fennel seeds and Pasticio Co’ Funghi, a cream-based pasta with wild forest mushrooms, anchovies and fresh basil continue to pull diners. Perfect meal-enders would be Gelato Il Balsamico, vanilla ice cream with balsamic vinegar and mint jelly or Pesche al Miele, peach slices in white wine flavored with honey and cinnamon. There’s also Aban’s homemade Blueberry Cheesecake added to the dessert menu.
Despite their busy day schedules—Anthony is a banker and Angel is college professor—the couple makes sure that every dish is freshly prepared. “We don’t use pre-mixed sauces nor do we use artificial flavoring. Our dishes are made from fresh ingredients and are prepared as faithfully as possible following the original Italian recipes,” adds Aban.
The couple hopes to expand the business by opening for lunch on weekends. But despite the resto’s limited operating time, 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Pizzeria Toscana enjoys a steady flow of customers. “Sometimes before we even open, there are already people waiting for us,” Parungao shares.