From what I have seen in numerous cooking shows hosted by true Italian chefs, almost every Italian home has someone who is bound to be the master of the kitchen, while the rest of the family either expectantly wait for orders or simply sit by the dinner table. The rules of this master, be he or she your mother, your aunt, or even your nephew, must be followed at all times and at all costs. These rules may cover the way ingredients should be cut, how the dough should be kneaded, or even how the plates should be prepared. But out of all these rules, one thing rings true not just for Italian but for all kinds of cuisine – a respect for tradition.
When it comes to Italian culinary tradition, the epitome rests in the kitchens of an established ristorante which has withstood the test of time and redevelopment around it. The grounds of posh Serendra in Bonifacio Global City are home to one such dining place: Balducci Ristorante.
The old lady
In December 2006, Luciano Paolo Nesi, who hails from the Tuscan region of Italy, and his partners in the L’Opera Group opened Balducci as a combination of a restaurant, a bar and a delicatessen to cater to the growing number of residents and patrons of Taguig City’s latest property development. Along with the newfound passion to further promote Italian cooking to the clamoring public, they brought with them original and timehonored recipes from family kitchens in Tuscany, making a name for themselves once again as among Manila’s top authentic Italian restaurateurs.
According to Vergel Gaygay, Balducci’s Dining Supervisor, the name Balducci comes from an old Italian monicker for ladies which has fallen out of use, and a name the owners thought would be a suitable brand for their new restaurant. Thankfully, in a stroke of irony, the restaurant stands far from being overlooked today and enjoys a reputation as an institution for classic semi-Mediterranean cuisine. Day in and day out, the restaurant sees patrons in both locals and foreigners, including dignitaries, politicians, and celebrities, who all enjoy the unpretentiousness of Balducci’s mellow ambience.
As it nears its first decade, Balducci adapts to the demands of the local palate without straying from tradition, ever increasing the variety of its dishes and offering regular promotions which would entice both the taste buds and the minds of its diners.
A break from the rules
As we began our tabletop introduction to Italy, we couldn’t help remarking on the abundance of mementos that adorn the restaurant’s walls. For instance, panoramic shots of famous Italian tourist spots hang in frames throughout the establishment. Also, Italian wines stand at the ready in every white-robed table, while the boxes in which they came in had been hooked to the nearest wall for aesthetic purposes: they lend a trattoria ’s air of casualness to the place. And yet, a short glimpse through Balducci’s window reminded us of our true location: in the middle of a busy district in the most modern side of town.
Our first dish, called Insalata mista di stagione con frutta fresca , was a mixture of greens, tomatoes, and fresh mangoes and grapes tossed with honeyed walnuts and a honey balsamic dressing. The mingling of crunchy lettuce with chewy walnuts and juicy fruit slices was expectedly a delightful play on texture. The addition of the sweet but tangy dressing gave a finishing touch that worked in spades.
Mr. Gaygay also brought to us a pan of oven-baked pizza which the kitchen called Little Italy. It wasn’t on the menu of the restaurant, so we got intrigued since this was a special dish prepared by the Chef for us. The pizza was a meat-lover’s revelation smothered with Bolognese sauce, full of ground meat and bacon, and baked to perfection in the in-house oven. To stay true to the Neapolitan way of partaking of the dish, the pizza wasn’t sliced, and the supervisor enjoined us to pull apart a piece of the pizza from the whole. After a few attempts, however, and perhaps for equitable distribution, he gave in to our apprehensions and finally asked the kitchen to slice it for us.
Master from across Italy
As we were enjoying our salad and pizza, we were introduced to Balducci’s Executive Chef, Antonio Saba, who hails from the island of Sardinia in Italy. Having spent almost five decades in the kitchen, he has acquainted himself with the different flavors of Italy’s numerous provincial regions, and regularly conducts regional nights at Balducci to feature an exciting new spectrum of tastes for diners, especially the regulars.
As a sample of his mastery of flavors and spices, he brought to us the Maccheroni alla Calabrese from Calabria , which was a dish of large macaroni tubes in the restaurant’s Italian tomato sauce and served with eggplant, fresh ricotta cheese and pine nuts. While the main feature of this dish is the pasta, I found myself enjoying the subtly smoky combination of the eggplant and the cheese which was finished off by the fragile crunch of pine nuts.
With a twist of creative prowess, Chef Saba followed through with the Ravioli all’Aragosta . In this dish, each piece of ravioli was filled with flavorful lobster meat, steamed, and drenched in a delectable cream sauce that elevates the tones of the lobster. However, what made the plate more interesting is that each pocket of pasta came in the colors of the Italian flag, highlighting the specificity of the culinary tradition.
Charge to experience
Before long, we were served our much-awaited main course, which turned out to be Filetto di manzo con fegato d’oca in salsa tartufata con spinaci e asparagi , or Angus beef tenderloin embedded with pan-fried foie gras in Balducci’s special sauce and served with fresh spinach and asparagus. I have had tenderloin prepared in different manners before, and I found this one special, for it was particularly soft and juicy, with the flavors from the many ingredients permeating through. The healthy heaps of spinach and asparagus that came with it were a perfect counterpoint.
And finally, what perfect way to finish our meal but with tiramisu , the iconic Italian cheesecake made of ladyfingers soaked in coffee and stacked alongside a creamy filling of mascarpone cheese and cream. Needless to say, this dessert is best enjoyed chilled, topped with a piece of maraschino cherry, and drizzled or sprinkled with additional chocolate syrup or powder.
I took the chance after dessert to get the know Chef Saba and his bosses more, who have been working together since Balducci opened. We talked much about favorite recipes and sudden requests for a new dish to be added to the menu. But what stuck in my mind were those remarks that alluded to what I had heard from those cooking shows. According to the chef, respect for tradition in kitchens and restaurants around the world stems from the value of experience and results borne out of it. Such respect is evident all throughout our dining experience at Balducci, unfailingly translating to good food and an even better relationship with the cuisine.