Caruso Offers Authenticity in the Time of “Instagrammable” Restaurants
Emilio Mina looks back at a time when food was meant to be enjoyed, not filtered.
By MAAN D'ASIS PAMARAN | Sep 7, 2017
We’ve all been there by now: restaurants that have been so hyped up on social media for the cool ambience and dishes that are served with more than enough flair but not enough taste. Luckily, there are some holdouts such as Caruso Ristorante Italiano on Nicanor Garcia Street in Makati, which offers Italian fare that harks back to owner Emilio Mina’s childhood days in the boot-shaped country. The dishes are so authentic that some of the recipes even come from his own mama and nonna, meant to be savored with actual conversation, just as in the good old days.
This does not mean that he has not made concessions to some of the trends that have emerged throughout the years. He has offered a pizza with pineapple toppings, and he is now about to carry rosé on his wine list, “because it is popular and people have started to look for it here,” he explains. His staff has been focused on updating his website and beefing up their social media presence as well.
Nevertheless, he remains constant to his mission of offering simple Italian food using authentic recipes and the best ingredients. This has made it the favorite haunt of many of Manila’s A-listers, so much so that they can be found enjoying their family dinners of osso buco and risotto in relative peace—even with people from other political affiliations seated at tables nearby.
“Italian cuisine has been listed as the best in the world,” he says a proudly, citing an article that he found on Bloomberg. “Why mess with it and put all these fusion? I do not do that, I did not have to change my recipes to suit the Filipino taste, because those who know good Italian food also know that they can find it here. There are some chefs who go into this fusion, but I am not into nouvelle cuisine. I like to keep my food authentic, to preserve the traditions that I grew up with.”
He waxes lyrical about the risotto that his nonna prepared for him during his growing up years. “I had it every Sunday, since I was three years old. “It is the same risotto porcini I offer here and I can say that it is the best.” He also has a dish that is largely unheard of in these parts: the Gragnano pasta al dente is full to the bite and inspired by the way pasta is enjoyed in the Italian town of Gragnano. The bistecca ala Fiorentinna is a big, beautiful slab of meat that can be ordered at a 1kg cut for a group of four. These and the other authentic Milanese and Tuscan dishes can be paired with an extensive list of wines and liqueurs for every course, from aperitivos down to the dolces.
The restaurant ambiance is also old-world with its predominantly wooden parquet floors, gleaming wall lamps, and white tablecloths and napkins. Paintings adorn the walls, with Emilio explaining that art and its appreciation is another thing that is innately Italian. “Art goes well with good food. That is why I encourage art and music at Caruso.” He points out that the most famous painting at the Louvre was done by an Italian—the "La Gioconda" by Leonardo da Vinci (that’s the Mona Lisa for us non-Italians). The painting adorns his menu cover, with a little cheeky gesture thrown in by Emilio as the Mona Lisa holds a Caruso calling card.
There is music courtesy of a pianist that performs every Saturday (“he is Imelda Marcos’ pianist," Emilio says as an aside), as well as the occasional concert featuring friends such as local jazz great Arthur Manuntag and balladeer/holiday season symbol Jose Mari Chan. Emilio also laughingly recounts the time Andrea Bocelli visited Caruso for lunch. “I told him he made me cry at his concert, and now it was my turn to make him cry because I will sing for him.”
Caruso is a quaint spot in a metropolis that is increasingly besieged by places that don’t live up to the hype. In short, it is the perfect place to impress a boss, a date, or potential in-laws as it remains true to its roots in an unpretentious manner.
Caruso Ristorante Italiano is open Mondays to Sundays for lunch and dinner at the LRI Design Plaza, 210 Nicanor Garcia Street, Bel-Air, Makati City.