MANILA, Philippines - Tisha* is a tall, sleek, Manolo-wearing, Chanel-carrying stunner. She is also a movie buff and a food and wine lover.
?I want to try that restaurant of Cesar Montano,? she declared one day. Martin*, the love of her life, obliged. Always eager to try a new restaurant, I gladly played third wheel. I had seen the restaurant featured on Susan Enriquez?s television show and was curious to see the art on its walls, that are by Montano himself, as well as the food, of course.
Not too familiar with Quezon City, we almost didn?t make it, circling the Scout streets a few times and asking for directions, before finding the Bellissimo sign, which is closer to the far end of Morato (near E. Rodriguez) than we expected. By this time, exasperated from the hunt, we would have eaten the guests alive. But all exasperation was washed away once we stepped into the restaurant as we were greeted at the door by the most beautiful man who ever walked the earth?Cesar Montano himself! Talk about a personal touch. I was impressed. We knew he owned the restaurant but we did not expect him to actually be there, attending to guests. That was a most unexpected and delightful surprise.
We were handed menus by his daughter, Angela, who manages the restaurant with her husband, Christopher Canlas. A waitress followed to assist us as Angela left to tend the cash register. ?Ma?am, try Aglio Olio,? she suggested. We obliged. I had actually wanted to start with their appetizer called Clyde?s Crabs but it was out of stock as, a waiter explained, the last pieces were ?consumed by Kris Aquino yesterday,? so we skipped that part of dinner and went straight to pizza, pasta and wine.
A bite into the pizza and I fell in love. ?I have always been into breads,? Montano explained when he stopped by later to chat. I took advantage of the opportunity to slyly interview him. ?When I was just a child, I would go to our neighborhood panaderia (baker) and volunteer to assist in making the bread. I was so fascinated by how bread is made, how they make it rise, how it takes its shape. Years later, I had my first taste of real Itaian pizza in Italy, and my passion for bread-making was sparked all over again. That inspired me to put up my own Italian restaurant.?
Indeed, Montano?s personal touches are all over the place. He selected the brick veneer himself. He commissioned some carpenters from a nearby province to make the tables and chairs. A table on the second floor has been autographed by his friend, ?Pulp Fiction"and ?Kill Bill? creator and director Quentin Tarantino, who wrote a short but glowing comment on the restaurant. And Montano?s own books on Italy are on display on the ground floor. ?I wanted the place to have the feel of a small, authentic Italian restaurant,? Montano said of the decor. A wall with black and white photographs of gangster movies and a display of his wine and Italian bread collection, albeit lean, underline this intention and help achieve the effect.
So does the menu. The menu has an extensive selection of pizzas and pastas, mostly for the price of P330, in sizes good for two. Staple Italian favorites like pizza margherita or spaghetti carbonara are present alongside Bellissimo?s own creations, such as the Sicily Pizza, which has anchovies and sundried tomatoes, or the Spaghetti Mafiosi, which has anchovies and sardines. The pizzas, without a doubt, upstage the pastas. The crust is slightly crispy at the bottom without making the entire pizza crunchy, maintaining the chewiness of the dough, an effect that is not as easy to achieve as it looks. On my way out on my last visit, I realized how this effect was accomplished by Bellissimo: the restaurant has its own traditional wood-fired brick oven. You can really taste the difference when something is cooked using wood. That ol? neighborhood baker with whom Montano hang out as a kid would be proud.
Aside from the dough, I also appreciated the flavors of the pizzas. I particularly liked the bite of sun-dried tomatoes against anchovies on the Sicily Pizza. The Gorgonzola Pizza was a surprising delight as well, although I may be biased on this one?I have a soft spot in my heart developing into a large soft spot in my midsection ( a.k.a. ?bilbil?) from blue cheese!
The pastas were filling although hit and miss. The Aglio Olio, recommended without fail by every waitress on every visit, is worth a try. It is heartwarmingly tasty without being too oily. The carbonara is also very delicious and a fail-safe order, though some might argue that it is not authentic Italian carbonara, as it uses white sauce. I have learned from some purists that real Italian carbonara simply uses eggs and bacon?no need for cream! But we?re not in Italy here, feeling lang... so pile on the cream as long as it hits the right spot!
In fact, some pastas do cater more to the Filipino palate. The complimentary bread, which is also made in their kitchen, leans on sweet. The Pasta Montano, which the menu describes as ?tri-color fusilli with sausage, bell pepper, cheese, pepperoni and salami,? lacked the salty and spicy bites expected from Italian sausage and pepperoni. But I realized that this was because the order, as served, did not have them. That was quite sad, actually, as the inclusion of these two ingredients would have given the Pasta Montano the ?Wow!? factor it could potentially evoke. On better days, though, the ingredients are complete, and given that the Italian sausage they have at this restaurant is impressive, just remember to ask the waitress before ordering if all the ingredients are present in their kitchen. Ideally, of course, you shouldn?t have to ask. If it was Michael Corleone they had served the incomplete dish to, he might be caught in this scenario in quiet rage, saying, ?Don?t tell me this has pepperoni because it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry.?
For the boys, just understand that the restaurant may still be experiencing birthing pains. They opened only last July. For the girls, well, one look at the real Montano could make your anger go away. He may even actually join you for dinner, as he did our group on that first visit, while making his rounds of hi?s and hello?s. Stylish Tisha, who can get away with anything, teased, ?Margaux thinks you should be on the menu... for dessert.? I wanted to hide under the pizza!
Real dessert was as yummy as the eye candy before us. Again, many items on the dessert menu were not available, such as the Mango Tango and the Sans Rival. But they always have the Tiramisu, which is quite a pleasant experience because it is only mildly on the sweet side. It is also circled with mini broas for added texture, bringing another dimension to the tiramisu experience.
All in all, the restaurant offers a hearty experience at very reasonable prices. It has a very relaxed vibe without sacrificing pizzazz. It?s also getting very good feedback by word of mouth. The third time I dined there, in the afternoon and alone, I noticed that the phone rang incessantly for reservations. I remember The Godfather again (it helps that Al Pacino?s picture is on the wall)... I bet if Bellissimo was the restaurant where Michael Corleone ?made his bones? that he wouldn?t just drop the gun and take the cannoli. The pugon pizza is so fresh and tasty I bet he would go with his original suggestion and finish dinner!
Bellissimo Ristorante. 105 Unit E & F Scout Castor cor Tomas Morato, Quezon City. 3765746/4140274/4118335. firstname.lastname@example.org. Major credit cards accepted. Open 11 a.m. to 12 mn on weekdays and up to 1 a.m. on weekends. Bands play on weekends on the second floor. Wheelchair access on the ground level. Casual.
* Not their real names.