Traditional course on Tuscan cuisine

- Bea Ledesma () - May 13, 2006 - 12:00am
Tucked in a quiet portion of The Fort Strip, a line of establishments bordered by the always bustling Embassy, lined with youngsters dressed in their club best, and the dark Mediterranean confines of Hossein’s Persian Kebab, L’Opera looms quietly, seemingly aloof against the energetic hubbub of nearby dining establishments. A stylish Italian restaurant that makes its mark not with splashy décor – although its interiors are nothing to scoff at – but with a laid-back menu that speaks for itself and a charming staff, L’Opera seduces the most cynical of customers with their loyalty to traditional Italian fare.

The restaurant is often noted for its diners, many of whom are celebrities. Aside from the expatriates, who comprise a large chunk of the restaurant’s clientele, local celebs like Robin Padilla, Richard Gomez and the like have been seen there. Imelda Marcos has the wait staff on speed dial. She is one of their more consistent clients. And on the day I dine there, for a rather early dinner at 6 p.m., actress and Philippine School of Interior Design graduate Carmi Martin shows up – meeting with a woman and her son, presumably friends of the actress.

What is more interesting is that the majority of the people supping at the Italian eatery are rather well-dressed. Compared to other establishments, where most patrons come dressed in flip-flops and other casual accoutrements, the people at surrounding tables are garbed in well-fitted polo shirts, elegant day dresses and (for some) tailored denims. It is perhaps in homage to the restaurant’s sleek yet rustic setting – where plush chairs are set against homey, well-lit brick walls, bucolic images on lithographs line partitions, and vintage Murano chandeliers decadently fill up ceiling space – that its patrons accord it such sartorial deference. Others could argue that the premium-priced meals at the restaurant limit customers to only the well-off and well-dressed. No matter the reason, the atmosphere is perfectly suited to the restaurant’s classy but cozy image.

Known for its rustic traditional cuisine, the restaurant, which opened in late 1994 in the heart of the business district in Greenbelt, moved to its current location in Bonifacio Global City on its 11th anniversary, bringing in the same high-powered business people and introducing their food to more low-key diners like families and the younger crowd.

Italian chef Moreno Mattei, who hails from Livorno, the seaside town of Tuscany, serves the same refined Tuscan cuisine the establishment’s been offering for more than a decade now, honing in on the region’s finest dishes. Abba Napa, daughter to one of L’Opera Group’s partners, serves as marketing chief, mainly because, she adds jokingly, she eats there so often her father suggested she pay for it by offering her services. "The food here is specifically Tuscan," she says. "It’s a combination of northern Italian cuisine, which is heavy and meaty, and southern Italian-style cooking, which has a Mediterranean flair so it’s spicier." The dishes stay true to their roots. There is no frying – a vast difference from the more American franchised counterparts of L’Opera, who seem to coat their parmesan-laden plates with a heavy dollop of grease. "There’s no pork either," she adds, "except maybe for the parma ham."

The menu revolves around the restaurant’s staples, which according to Abba, are pasta (the tartufo is a must) and risotto. "I’ve brought people to L’Opera, who’ve dined abroad, and they say it’s authentic traditional Italian food. Which isn’t surprising. Our chef is traditional. The food isn’t skewed to, say, sweeter Filipino tastes."

And it’s true. Though I haven’t been lucky enough to sample food prepared in Tuscany, while dining by the locale’s beautiful seaside resorts (in my fantasy, I’m dressed in a Doris Duke-inspired caftan and sipping a glass of incredibly expensive white wine), the three dishes served were wholehearted attempts to transport the diner to the region via the interesting seasonings, the simple, no-nonsense approach to cooking, and the hearty servings (you do get value for the price).

We began with Carpaccio of duck breast with goose liver and truffle sauce. A delicate mélange of rich textures, beginning with the lusciously fatty and fantastically flavored foie gras (do not attempt foie gras if you’re on a diet) juxtaposed against the sharp saltiness of thinly-sliced duck breast, the dish picks up on flavor with an arugula salad with artichokes, olives and parmesan shavings. The dish was paired with a Sauternes Cru Classe 1997, a sweet French wine, which cut through the unctuousness of the goose liver with its fresh crisp acidity.

This was followed by Tagliatelle al tartufo with parma ham. In English: thin egg noodles in truffle sauce wrapped in prosciutto slices. A rich dish, heavy on a deliciously creamy sauce yet light enough to leave you wanting more, it’s got heart – that quality that most people associate with a loving Italian mother, who gets up at the crack of dawn to make pasta from scratch. Granted, that must sound like a cliché, but for some, the dish is a throwback to good old rustic cuisine. A Chianti Peppoli wraps up the dish, a rounded red wine with red cherry characteristics, meant to balance the saltiness of the ham.

The third course comes in the form of Filetto de manzo ai porcini, a nice slice of grilled prime US beef tenderloin in porcini cream sauce with fresh greens. Depending on what’s available, the greens vary from broccoli to asparagus. It’s finished with Ca’del Baio Barbaresco, a powerful red wine with a long finish, which should balance out the strong flavor of the wild mushroom.

No meal is complete without dessert and L’Opera offers a plateful of their finest: tiramisu, chocolate cake and a dreamy panna cotta drizzled with truffle oil and vinaigrette that elevates the dish to a whole other sphere. Imagine the delicate, creamy panna cotta cut with a sweet/sour tang courtesy of the vinaigrette and a little richness from the truffle oil and you’re almost close to the incredible flavors the dish conjures. "It’s a love it or hate it dish," Abba says. "Some people come away raving about it, while others favor the classic panna cotta sans vinaigrette."

The restaurant has been known to elicit reactions of surprise (in a good way, of course) and happiness from people as only good food can. With a menu that is chicly put-together and self-assured, the people behind L’Opera veer away from the culinary calisthenics of more experimental establishments but instead put their focus on the richly storied fare of Tuscany.
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L’Opera is located at The Fort, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City. For reservations, call 889-3963/889-2784.

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