It is true that "simple" makes a lasting impression. For one particular "hidden" restaurant in Makati, Philippines, simple goes a long way. It can even get you stuffed with deliciously bona fide Italian meals.
"Cucina Rusticana," meaning "rustic kitchen" in English, is a small restaurant in Makati, that serves authentic and homespun Italian dishes worthy of strict restaurant critics and serious foodies. The place has an attractive interior that makes the customers feel like they're smack in the middle of an Italian family dinner, or mafia meeting without the bad guys and guns.
The red brick walls, the checkered tablecloths, the wine list written on a chalkboard, and kitchen decorations as if you're walking into the kitchen of an Italian family, are a few of the details that make the dining experience molto buona. Just like its vibe, the food is simple-yet-breathtaking, full of flavors and rich in heritage.
Every curious stomach loves a chef who knows his passion like the back of their cooking hand, and JJ Viel is nothing short of a true blue Fil-Italian chef. JJ whips up recipes straight from the Northern part of Italy, where his family came from. He says he always loved cooking and was only waiting for the right moment until he is able to put up a restaurant where he can share his desire and feed his hunger (and his customers' too) for real Italian cooking.
Luckily enough, I was asked to dine and write about my experience at the restaurant and every writer knows how big of a relief it is to not sugarcoat the quality of food and atmosphere presented in the situation. I brought a date with me so I'll have someone to help me finish the supposedly huge servings and by the end of our meal, we couldn't stop talking about what we just ate.
The restaurant offers three kinds of menus: the regular menu, a homespun menu, and a weekend seafood menu (to maximize the freshness of the ingredients) all filled with gastronomic gems for anyone willing to visit Italy via their taste buds. All ingredients used are imported from Italy, and it is great to know that their authenticity starts from the first step of creating the dishes. Customers even get to enjoy "candlelit Wednesdays" if they like a romantic dining experience. Imagine a small, cozy, and warm restaurant with only candles and world-class food present. Now that's a good date if you ever want to think of one.
Don't just take my word for it. The CEO of A Taste of Italy and food critic, Giovanni Bet, attests to the restaurant's quality cooking. JJ says when Mr. Bet came in and ordered the Filetto di Solia Al Forna (herbed and spiced fish fillet, onions, Capsicum) and Anti Pasto Freddo Misto (cold cuts, Provolone Dolce cheese), he swears to the authenticity and truthfulness of the dishes.
Another great thing about Cucina Rusticana is their wine list and suggested pairings. No more guessing which wine to go with your order, the menu says it all- together with nicely-threaded descriptions for each dish enough to flip out your starving senses.
Appetizer - Simple and just right
If there's one thing I learned about watching all those Italian cooking shows on the Lifestyle Channel, it is that appetizers should be tasty and petite enough to excite the taste buds without filling your stomach. We had the Tomato and Zucchini Bruschetta-little crostini's topped with minced tomatoes and sautéed zucchini, with herbs and freshly-grated parmesan cheese. A simple start for a hearty meal, the mixture of zing and surprising flavors from the herbs stimulated my appetite and gave the right amount of kick for a relay of flavors.
Cucina Rusticana's Tomato and Zucchini Bruschetta and Cream of Spinach
First course - Soups to thrill
My grandma taught me that a good bowl of soup should embrace the tongue with a full flavor even with just one spoonful. Cucina Rusticana's Minestra De Zucca has a delightful roasted pumpkin flavor and creamy-yet- light consistency that wrapped my mouth with a blanket of delectable subtleness. We also had the Cream of Spinach, the second of the two soup choices the restaurant offers. It has a caressing flavor that is brought out by the freshly pureed spinach white wine reduction base, and creamy finish.
Main course - Nice to meat you, authentic Italian cuisine
Going against popular public conception that pizza and pasta should be the stars of an Italian main course, our experience at Cucina Rusticana is like an epiphany for our tummies and mindsets because of the dishes we had. First, the chef served his specialty, Beef Porcini-a plate of slow braised beef sirloin in a dark, savory mushroom sauce, served with rich mashed potatoes. The tenderness of the beef, together with the creamy, dark and sharp taste of the mushroom sauce (definitely not bitter and full of flavor) provided the great filling that our yearnings needed. Nothing formulates comfort more than beef and potatoes, especially in a rustic, Italian setting. Gallina Alla Parmigiana, or better known as Chicken Parmigiana, is one of the restaurant's bestsellers, and it was imperative that we try it. The stuffed, pan-seared chicken breasts swimming in white wine cream and parmesan cheese sauce elated our expectations. The tangy Pomodoro sauce finished the melody of tastes, plus it is a tasty contrast against the creamy blanket of white sauce.
Cucina Rusticana's Gallina Alla Parmigiana and Beef Porcini
Pizza and pasta, no matter how popular and "Italian" they are perceived, are considered as plain fast food items for Italian cuisine. According to Chef JJ, Mr. Bet, the Italian critic I mentioned earlier, came inside the kitchen to inspect his station and advised not to put pizzas in the menu because it will "ruin the integrity of the restaurant."
Not to get their preferences the wrong way, Cucina Rusticana does have its exquisite selection of pasta dishes, with the Linguine in White Wine Clam Sauce as the specialty. If an Italian restaurant can do their meats spot-on, then guests can expect the pasta dishes to be sensational.
Dessert - Sweet and gentle (and melts in your mouth)
I've always had dreams of having the best panna cotta my mouth could ever handle, but frequent trips to cheap bakeshops and half-assed orders from various joints that offer it always end my meals with a dull note. But when Chef JJ served us the Walnut Caramel Panna Cotta, my sweet tooth died and met the fairy, then ran back to life. The smooth consistency is perfect, with a gentle sweetness that didn't jolt me in the wrong way. The creamy panna cotta has a layer of fresh caramel sauce on top, with crushed walnuts to finish off the crunch and texture. The chef also took out some handmade Crostoli (or Chiacchiere in Italian)-crispy, light biscuits sweetened with powdered sugar. The chef is proud to say that the restaurant is the only one that serves this Northern Italy delicacy around the metro.
Wine list and Walnut Caramel Panna Cotta
If you're looking for a place to experience what it's like to have a taste of real Italian cooking, scratch your current preferences and place Cucina Rusticana at the top of your list. Because the food is simply satisfying, reasonably-priced, tasty, and made with so much amore, it is just right to put this place on the local Italian joint pedestal. Customers will be surprised to see the low prices compared to other restaurants whose servings are so miniscule.
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Cucina Rusticana is located at 9351 Akle St., corner Kamagong St. Makati, Metro Manila. Restaurant hours begin at 11am to 3pm, and resumes service at 6pm to 11pm (varies), from Monday to Sunday.