Aria: La Dolce Aria

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The word “aria” has at least two meanings. In Italian, it is the word for air. In musical terminology, it is used to describe a self-contained piece for one voice usually with orchestral accompaniment, usually in opera. Where Aria Cucina Italiana Restaurant is concerned, both definitions apply most appropriately.

The airy feel of the restaurant is immediately apparent. Pin lights dot a perforated ceiling while stucco and burnt sienna walls give a spacious, yawning feel for the dining area. A huge transparent papier-mâché mesh art installation called CUCME (pronounced “See You See Me”) by modern artist Kenneth Cobonpue eloquently separates two sets of dining areas with its message made tangible. The rest of Aria’s chic look is punctuated by whimsical and stark Aztec-like paintings from French artist Di Meliora.

The brainchild of business partners Juan Elizalde and Paolo Occhionero, Aria came into being on Boracay’s sun-splashed shores in 2003. Now, nine years later, this dynamic duo decided to bring their winning recipe of good Italian food and electric ambience to Bonifacio High Street in Taguig to take in a new audience, namely folks who haven’t had a whiff of their dishes from their island base camp.

For those who are curious to know what has given Aria in Boracay a loyal customer fan base, here’s where we get to the other definition of aria—the opera part. Let’s just say that a meal here is symphonic, yet each dish stands alone, much like an operatic aria. For example, the Tagliatelle Con Tartufo Asparagi e Prosciutto di Parma—with homemade tagliatelle noodles, white truffle oil, asparagus spears and wafer-thin slices of parma ham—is a joy to behold and to consume. The freshness of the pasta unmistakable.

I partook of the Carpaccio di Tonno, delicate medallions of fresh raw tuna in a lemon herb marinade topped with fresh arugula ribbons and bracing Parmesan slivers carved straight from the block. This verdant appetizer was followed up by Insalata di Cocomero, Rucola e Pinoli, a munchy mound of yet more organic arugula, but this time with juicy chunks of seedless watermelon, oh-so-tangy-and-soft diced feta cheese, pearlescent pine nuts and earthy vinaigrette dressing. To quote my host, Aria’s Marketing Officer Celine Aguila, “It’s like summer in your mouth.” After half a forkful, I believed her.

Aria made its name with pasta and pizza and now we were to discover why. The Rucola e Pinoli Pizza, an even yet bubbly mélange of cream sauce, mozzarella cheese and extremely generous helpings of arugula and pine nuts—as fresh as the ones from the Cocomero salad—on top of a thin but crusty pizza pie. Capricciosa Pizza came next, a mainstay in any Italian restaurant (the others being the Napolitano and the Margherita) was chockfull of succulent cherry tomatoes, tart artichokes, tender farmer’s ham, mushrooms, kalamata olives—stronger and more flavorful than regular olives—and more mozzarella.

As a counterpoint to all the greens, meat and cheeses, we were served Aria Tris di Dolci, a terrific triumvirate of tasty treats: panna cotta, Crema Catalana and tiramisu. The panna cotta and tiramisu were served in cute martiniglass-like bowls while the Crema Catalana came in a corrugated crème brulee bowl garnished with mint leaves, which is no surprise considering that they are practicallythe same dish. Where panna cottas were concerned, the Tris di Dolci version was silky like whipped cream (most other panna cotta recipes share more in common with gelatin) and topped with toothsome hazelnuts in a heady chocolate sauce. The tiramisu’s coffee essence swam on a bed of rich cream with a spongy cake at the bottom of the glass.

The real finishers however were the cocktails. As a Boracay restaurant and hangout, Aria possesses an arsenal of wicked mixed drinks that aren’t available anywhere else north of Manila or South of Aklan, and its Taguig counterpart was no exception. The Aria Cloud Nine is an ecstasy inducing elixir of cream, Midori, crème de cacao and pineapple juice. The dollop of cream is carefully spooned into the glass so it resembles a cumulus cloud floating lazily atop a green sea of ice cubes, with a cherry garnish and pineapple sprig to keep it company.

What really got our attention was this unnamed drink they let me try, a creative concoction concocted on the day we arrived. This potent potable begins life as a shooter of grenadine syrup, amaretto, rum and Bacardi. The shooter is then set alight briefly before being extinguished by being deftly placed upside-down into a cocktail glass. While the shooter rests at the center of the glass, a potion of iced tea, apple juice and lime mix is poured over it until the whole thing resembles a rather surreal aquarium. The drink is served with a straw that you use to stir the mixture with, and any disturbance lets the shooter’s contents seep into the rest of the tonic, much like a homebrew time-release capsule. The result is a drink whose character changes over time, or in my case, in one clumsy swirl.

Damn, it was good. Hope they name it after me.

Interview with Chef Marino Otta vio Leonar dis of Aria

With a name that sounds worthy of a Roman Caesar, one would hardly be surprised to have the lean and ruggedly outdoorsylooking Chef Marino Ottavio Leonardis as the lord and master of Aria’s kitchen. Nonetheless, he rules his rather jocular subjects with an eventempered hand and, despite having begun working together quite recently, nurtures an effective chemistry between the chef and his team. One could even go as far as to say it was alchemy for it does result in magic in the dining area.

“I’ve only started since last year,” he admits. “But I’ve been friends with one of the owners, Paolo Occhionero, for about three years now.” Hitting the ground running is a necessary skill for the Italian-born chef, especially since Aria Boracay has quite a reputation as an institution and he’s had to leave a good impression to first-timers who are unfamiliar with Aria’s southern sibling. “Aria Boracay is an unforgettable beach restaurant, and people go there mostly to enjoy the beach as well as the food,” states Chef Marino. The laid-back and easy-going culture Boracay took to Aria and made it part of their vacation routine. “Our guests, they go to Aria Boracay, they eat, and right after, they go back to the beach,” he says, shrugging. Miles away from any beach in Bonifacio Global City, Chef Marino’s bailiwick is somewhat more staid and so adjustments had to be made. “With Aria Manila, it is more of a family restaurant where people can spend a long time sitting at our restaurant.”

With a name that sounds worthy of a Roman Caesar, one would hardly be surprised to have the lean and ruggedly outdoorsylooking Chef Marino Ottavio Leonardis as the lord and master of Aria’s kitchen. Nonetheless, he rules his rather jocular subjects with an eventempered hand and, despite having begun working together quite recently, nurtures an effective chemistry between the chef and his team. One could even go as far as to say it was alchemy for it does result in magic in the dining area.

To keep his customers sitting in Aria and coming back for more, Chef Marino focuses on the Philippine palate through what he can draw from the rich cultural heritage of the land of his birth. “I plan to make Aria the representative of Italian cuisine here in the Philippines,” he reveals. “I wish to bring here all the tradition and history of Italian cuisine.” To do that, he draws inspiration from following what Filipinos like in terms of taste, texture and aroma and attempts to reach it using what he calls the ‘authentic Italian way’. He feels that through this, he can put Aria Manila on the map, the same way his partners managed to do the same in Boracay almost a decade ago. “I want Aria to be known for the quality of homemade food,” he declares. “I want it to have a likeable ambiance where people can feel at home. Even also where Italian guests can feel home away from home.”

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