The fork deftly plunges into the Pasta Amatriciana like an Olympic diver jumping into a pool. Mary Grace Dimacali, founder and owner of the eponymous Café at the NAIA 3, twirls the fork expertly in a single neat gesture that spins like a ballerina doing a pirouette. “I love doing this,” she admits. “I’m so used to it at home, with five kids and now five grandchildren, I really love being a mom.” The resulting mound of pasta on my dainty plate looks almost symmetrical, so neat it seems almost engineered as a single precise portion. One scooped up Italian meatball is propped onto the top like an ice cream sundae and the serving is complete. Dimacali does the same for her husband, Hector, whose own plate has the same identical mound of pasta with requisite meatball teetering on top.
We’re sitting at an immense table patch-worked underneath with dozens of little thank-you notes from appreciative diners – one of Mary Grace Café’s signature design hallmarks found in all her cafés, of which there are more than a few all over the country. I ask the obvious question, “How did you get all these notes?” “It’s very Pinoy, isn’t it,” she replies. “Initially we were soliciting for letters and then later on, you find that people are just very effusive. It’s an expression of their appreciation. It’s really very uplifting.”
The placid air and gentle strains of Pavarotti belting out “Nessun Dorma” is punctuated by the requisite airline announcements of flights about to take off or searches for errant passengers about to miss said flights. “We opened around January 21, just this year,” she continues. “The airport called us to be one of the restaurateurs to open here and we made a bid for the place. We got the second shot spot to choose our location here at the fourth floor.” Admittedly a bit hard to find at first (I ended up wandering around the opposite side of the food court before someone came to pick me up), the café is in a really spacious section. “We’re confident about this spot. Eventually, we’ll be known to travelers, both local and foreign,” affirms Dimacali. “We’ve added a few elements in the layout of this place, we have the advantage of a balcony, which we try to make like a rest area. My son also suggested we put in some chairs in front to make it suggestive of the quiet waters of the Philippines’ famous beaches, complete with those big umbrellas next to them.” As if on cue, a world-weary group of travelers promptly plop down on the chairs just outside, their luggage surrounding them like an industrial, candy-colored version of a pillow fort. The spaciousness is evident inside as well, as our own enormous table would have enough space were we to lug our own luggage. In fact, had our table and its twin beside us been fully occupied, there still would have been enough room for our luggage. “We believe in giving a little more,” she says simply. “It all comes back to you tenfold.”
As expected, that brand of care and consideration practically dribbles out of every morsel of food they make. I start with a tall Fresh Blackberry Fruit Shake made with real blackberries and served with milk and sugar syrup (separate if you want, which I did). The tart, solid blackberry taste is what I have sought for – it truly hides no additives in it, just crushed ice. The Mary Grace Tandem is the first to come out – her personal classics; grilled ensaymada paired with hot chocolate with a cheese roll. I tear into the ensaymada with my fingers and the powdery quezo de bola forms a delicate crust while the soft, freshly baked dough feels softer than cotton. I dip the tuft of bread into the lava-like chocolate and pop the resulting deliciously sloppy mess into my mouth. For a brief instant, my brain stops working. I do the same with the cheese roll – the bread, although different from the ensaymada, is just as cloud-wispy delicate. I dip that into the chocolate and eat it and my mind goes full Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder. When I come to, the ensaymada and cheese roll are gone as if by magic and I don’t remember having eaten them. My hosts assure me that I in fact, did.
The Spicy Lemon Scampi is brought out next, fat and juicy pan-seared prawns on linguini noodles seasoned with lemon, chili and garlic sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. The delicate sour/spice combo tickles my taste buds, while the perfectly al dente noodles are scrumptious. My brain threatens to shut down again, but before that happens the
Pasta Amatriciana with Italian Meatballs follows – nugget-sized but very flavorful Italian meatballs atop spaghetti noodles tossed into thick tomato sauce with the essence of bacon and chili. To complete this pasta party is a Fresh Tomato and Herb Plate with grilled chicken and orange salad with black olive dressing, some fresh tomato and herb pasta and a cake to pair off with it (more on that in a bit).
I manage to hold on to my sanity long enough for a Vigan Longganisa with rosemary rice (a secret rice mix whose recipe Dimacali coyly refuses to divulge beyond the aforementioned rosemary) and sunny side up eggs. The longganisa has that tightrope-like balance of salty, fatty and meaty so well, paired off smashingly with the hearty, fragrant rice.
Back to the cake in question earlier, eventually I have three before me – Strawberry Shortcake with plump imported strawberries and whipped cream lovingly embraced by sponge cake as velvety as an angel’s smile, Caramel Vanilla Bean Cake that is homemade caramel in between layers of chiffon cake artfully detailed with vanilla bean frosting and caramelized flakes, and finally, the Mango Bene, a sandwich of frozen layers of meringue, custard cream and fresh Guimaras mangoes (which I consider to be the best in the world). Each cake is a joy, a work of art, as if I were eating the gastronomic equivalent of a Masamune, or a Hokusai.
After a meal like that, it’s hard not to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. While she’s not looking, I hastily pen a note and slip it under the glass table, hoping she’ll find it someday – one among many others that have made Mary Grace Café a home away from home.