Jonathan Crespi and Stephanie Zubiri delight in fine Italian cuisine with Vicki A de Leon at the new L’incontro Ristorante Italiano.
There are many Italian restaurants in Manila with family-friendly interiors and typical menus but few have the vibe and energy of L'Incontro Ristorante Italiano. Now run by its managing partner and executive corporate chef Tina Pamintuan and her partner, the decade-old L'Incontro has changed its image from the dim Italian eatery into an elegant space where people come for good food, great wine, privacy and a special experience.
Pamintuan has lived in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, and her passion for food is so deep she got a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in London. "It's nice to have a home with L'Incontro," she says. "It's a destination restaurant and a special occasion place where we've hosted proposals, anniversaries and birthday parties. It's been a year and half in the making, but we've changed the old L'Incontro to make it our own." With the help of the art and design consultant Miguel Rosales, the new L'Incontro now offers diners the old world feel and charm of a modern Italian farmhouse. Guests get free valet parking. Cool jazz music croons out of the state-of-the-art surround sound system. Diners sit comfortably and there is a chef 's table where menus can be personalised. And it recently launched its sophisticated bar lounge, L'Aperitivo, meant to be an in-between place for people who want to go somewhere after work, before dinner or before ending an evening out.
Invited to L'Incontro for a special pasta degustación are Stephanie Zubiri and her beau, the dashing Jonathan Crespi, both regulars of the restaurant. "Stephanie and Jonathan enjoy and know the art and seduction of eating out," says Pamintuan. Asked about why they love coming here, Zubiri says, "For the crespella. And the chef is gorgeous!" Crespi believes L'Incontro has a great menu with quality service and, best of all, consistency. "I went here once before in 2006, but I wasn't compelled to come back. Since Tina took over I've made my way back here countless times. Every time I come there are nice developments and a real evolution of the place," he says. He also feels that it boasts good lighting, unlike some restaurants in town.
The couple are treated to terrine of foie gras de canard and white wine at L'Aperitivo. Everyone moves to the dining room for dinner and served more wine. Pamintuan says that her diners always order by the bottle. The degustation starts with Open Ravioli with Spinach, Pine Nuts and Wild Mushrooms and the couple like the spinach in it. The next plate served is Orrechiete à la Vodka with pasta shells, creamy tomatoes, Parmesan and spiced vodka. "They warm the plates," observes Crespi. "This is spot on. The crunch and the sweetness are very nice. I would eat it again." Zubiri appreciates the simplicity of the dish. "It has four ingredients that are well executed and of good quality. The pasta is al dente, the tomatoes are fresh. You don't need to overdo it. That's what Italian cooking is about: taking fresh ingredients and putting it all together." Each plate has the right tasting quantity and the perfect amount of sauce for the pasta noodle.
The next tasting plate is Crab Cake Linguini with white crab and Italian bread crumbs, chilli, bacon and cream. "This is my favourite!" exclaims Zubiri. "I've tried this before once. I love crab cakes and it's like one big fat crab cake with lemon zest." Crespi, who loves all things spicy, says, "This is really nice. It's the kind of spice that doesn't hurt. It opens up the taste buds in the mouth." Following this are a couple of heavier dishes: a rich dish of Ricotta and Sweet Potato Tortellini of fresh pasta stuffed dumplings, Italian lunghanigue, amaretto bread crumbs au jus and sherry wine reduction, then a Baked Gnocchi of pomodoro and basil with smoked white cheese.
To cap off the pasta tasting, the Cheese cake Sampler of Belgian white chocolate with chocolate shavings, dark chocolate cheesecake and dark chocolate bar with salt and gorgonzola cheesecake with candied walnuts arrives. Again Zubiri says it is one of her favourites. Crespi, who is not a dessert person, does enjoy the unique gorgonzola cheesecake. The meal is done and the guests move back to L'Aperitivo to enjoy the potent Malongotinis, coffee martinis specially concocted for L'Incontro.
"What I like with Tina is not selling out to what people expect of a typical Italian restau- rant. There are few Italian fine dining restaurants in the city," says Zubiri. "It's not necessary to even say that it's just Italian - but simply fine dining," says Crespi.