A Sneak Peek at What Could Be Manila's Best Pizza
The sign is up, but the glass wall enclosing Elbert’s Pizzeria is still covered with Manila paper. This implied exclusivity seems to be enough to inform the public that, while there appears to be some activity inside, the establishment is not accepting walk-ins—not yet, anyway, and definitely not until it has all the kinks ironed out.
Owner Elbert Cuenca welcomes us in, however, and is quick to offer the pizzas that are already waiting on the counter. His good friend and supplier of all delicious things, Bacchus International owner Alex Lichaytoo, hovers over us to inspect the pies and observe the action. “Alex brings in most of our ingredients and appliances,” Elbert points out. Then, he adds with a grin, “clearly he’s not the supplier of our aircon.”
Clearly, they are in no rush to get this project going. The idea to open a pizzeria was sparked by a remarkable meal that took place 10 years ago at Ilog Maria in Silang, Cavite, the farm of the Cuencas’ cousin Joel Magsaysay.
“He built his own wood-fired oven there and had a huge collection of dried wood,” recalls Elbert. The day was spent making pizzas in that wood-fired oven and clearly, this made an impact. “The crusts of the pizzas we had were astounding,” Elbert shares,” That was when I thought of a pizzeria. However, I couldn’t justify commercial viability due to the challenge of finding a sustainable and consistent supply of wood for burning.”
This major component became suddenly accessible when Elbert discovered compressed wood. “This way, there is consistency. Not just with the supply and the flavor from the wood, but also the heat in the oven.” Then, the pizzeria idea started to gain traction. “I sent my brother Adrian (the corporate chef of Steak Room Concepts Inc) to Naples to learn the art of pizza-making, Napoli style.” When a space near his Steak Room on Dela Costa Street became available, it was the last thing Elbert needed to get the project off the ground.
In the Salcedo Village space along Leviste Street, the Cuencas need only to conquer one last hurdle: making the perfect pizza. Not just once, but every single time. Their lipstick-red Italian-made oven is fueled by the compressed beech wood logs that Lichaytoo also brings in for them, along with all their ingredients needed to make the perfects pies. “We use Caputo 00 Pizzeria flour," Elbert explains. “It is able to give us the crust characteristics we want—thin, crunchy, and chewy.”
And what, we ask, is the perfect pie? “The perfect pizza is one that’s balanced. The progression starts with flavor and ends with texture," Elbert starts. “When you take your first bite, you are tasting the sweetness of Italian tomato pulp married with the creaminess of delicate mozzarella. When you take your second bite, you notice the crust, as its chewiness comes into play. The third bite makes you notice the slight crunch of the chewy crust.”
Capturing this interplay of delicate flavors and nuanced textures is truly what makes Napoli-style pizza a worrisome balancing act. Chef Adrian shares that it calls for teamwork—from the guy who proofs the dough, to the one who stretches it and gingerly applies the toppings, to the one who bakes it in the oven at just the right time and temperature. Lichaytoo also conveys the role the toppings play in ensuring crust perfection. “You have to watch the moisture coming from the toppings,” he warns. “Like, mushrooms, for example. People do not realize that mushrooms are full of moisture. So when you cook with them, you have to keep that in mind.”
This comes into careful consideration, I am sure, when chef Adrian prepares his Quattro Formaggi e Funghi. Topped with a rich combination of cheeses plus those aromatic yet tricky mushrooms, it will surely be a bestseller despite being the priciest item on the menu. The Margherita can be ordered in its striking simplicity, or topped with spicy salami or sausage. Vegans can opt for the Siciliana, which is a cheese-less pizza, without the anchovies.
What about the crust, you ask? It was everything Elbert said it would be. Even when the pizzas had been left on the counter for 15 to 20 minutes—a little test I did to check the crust’s longevity—it remained chewy and slightly crunchy. Combined with the finest toppings available on the market, it truly was the best pizza I have tried locally, and definitely at par with some of my favorites abroad. I say this to chef Adrian on our way out, to which he humbly replies, “We are still practicing.”
V Corporate Center, Leviste Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City