A well-remembered restaurant revs up for its rebirth.
Everyone remembers Il Ponticello, the Italian restaurant that had its heyday in the late 90s. Famed for its food, it morphed into a bar in its later years, and though it never stopped operations, it settled into obscurity.
Coming back to Ponti (as it will occasionally be called in this piece) sparks a stark sense of de ja vu. I knew the original owners as they were my college batchmates, and the restaurant manager was a good friend of mine. I also distinctly remember a thoroughly decadent chocolate dessert they used to serve here called torta al cioccolato della nonna (Grandmother’s chocolate cake) but more on the desserts later.
Now, at a time when Manila’s restaurant landscape has never been so diverse and exciting, Il Ponticello renews itself and reclaims its place as that which serves impeccable Italian cuisine. Re-energized with a new set of owners and culinary team, the changes are immediately apparent in first, the interiors: lightness and luxe have replaced dark and heavy. Clean lines run through the plush banquettes as does a more subdued color palette. The place is calming and classy, suited for any dining occasion.
I sip an aperitivo – only one from the very capable selection – while I study the menu. Though the dishes are unfamiliar to me now, the Ponti Spritz (P300) is close to the one I have in Italy, various bitters enlivened by passionfruit juice.
When it comes to table, it’s difficult to believe that the inverted slices are that of portobellos, but that they are in the Grilled Portobello Ala Griglia (P490). It and the mozzarella di bufala are anointed with smoke, an aroma-texture tandem that weaves and wends its way through the olive oil and poached cherry tomatoes. An impressive starter imprinting the beginning of an incredible meal.
A Lasagna Carbonara (P420) might appear to be one of those hilarious hybrids, homemade sheets of pasta ensconcing layers of mozzarella cream. There are shards of grana padano pointing up notes of salt boosted with patches of pancetta. I pierce the egg yolk, its glorious goldenness flows and falls over all. This dish … it has a taste to make my heart stop, or at least I think it might – it would be worth it. Lasagna+carbonara: they are indeed, better together.
Il Ponticello’s Executive Chef, Panky Lopez, is responsible for renewing the menu. Having earned his stripes at Solaire Manila’s Finestra and other establishments, he portrays Ponti’s cuisine as new Italian. Witness this in the Rotolo (P480), a flat pizza of sorts coiled around twin creams: tomato and ricotta and laced with mortadella. It’s supple and salty and induces little purring sounds of satisfaction. I prefer the Rotolo’s flavor and uniqueness over the flat(ter) pizzas such as the Pizza Valdostana (below; P480) a mingling of gorgonzola cream, parma, and garnished with arugula.
Aside from the obvious care and talent that Chef Panky attends to his dishes, there’s much pride in the ingredients used. Local vegetables and fruits are supplied by trusted purveyors, Italian products such as quality extra virgin olive oil are used as well as “00” flour. All other products are imported from elsewhere in the world, but when possible, from Italy, such as the salumi (related pork products) and some pasta.
Italian food means pasta of course, and Ponti offers some fine representations, but I want to tell you about an off the menu pasta dish. Unofficially called Presto, it’s pine nuts and pesto butter, a love story told on trofie, a stubby pasta with tapered ends. Perfectly cooked on the tooth-al dente, there’s a bite and a crunch and waves of cream. Order this one now.
Meatier mains are almost an afterthought in an Italian restaurant – at least here in Manila – since pizza and pasta steal the show, but make room you must for these two. One of the finest roasts to be had in a restaurant is the Signature Porchetta ala Romana (P390, solo; P1200, whole roast). Revel in the resoundingly loud crunch of the skin before sinking into the meat, heady it is with fennel and garlic, glistening fat, and moist meat. Like love and lust, this dish reveals its true self only when tasted.
Another marvel for meat-lovers is the Flat Iron Steak (P590). Cut from the shoulder and also known as top blade steak, it possesses a richly beefy flavor. For relief, delve into the accompanying summer salad and garlicky mashed potatoes.
When it comes to the desserts, my enchantment isn’t as effusive.
The Panna Cotta (P290) could do with much less gelatin but the touch of whimsy – a cheesecake crumble and trails of caramel candy – is inspired.
I still maintain that the cannoli at Mona Lisa is the best in Manila. But should you prefer a lighter version, Ponti’s Cannoli (P290) is a contender. Its shell is suffused with cinnamon and cocoa and its inside is filled with ricotta cream strewn with dark chocolate.
Tiramisu is one of those desserts I don’t like (I explain why in my book), but should you order the one at Ponti (P290), please get the Nutellino to accompany it. A most apt digestif, it’s got Nutella and vodka and an assortment of other alcoholics that makes it absolutely addicting.
Sadly, the torta al cioccolato della nonna of my nostalgia is nowhere to be found. Another chocolate choice however, is found in the Budino al Cioccolato (P390). Its trembling middle oozes delicious darkness to be lapped up with vanilla cream and/or poured over by the potful of caramel sauce.
I think food lovers have a secret pantry in their minds where they collect plates filled with memories. Such was it with my remembrances of the old Il Ponticello. Now that it’s back and better than ever, it’s time for me to clean out that plate and wait for it to be filled again.
Unit 203 2/F Antel Corporate Center, 121 Valero Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City
02 553 9971, 994 9512
Open 11:30 am – 2 pm, 6 pm- 12midnight – Monday to Friday. Open for dinner on Saturday, closed on Sunday.