One of the most confusing things about Makati is its various one-way streets. It’s as if they were built for the sole purpose of getting you lost. So when I got wind of a new hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant somewhere in Kamagong, courtesy of one of the coolest English teachers to have ever taught at my terribly uptight Catholic school (I LOVE YOU, MIZ FRAN!), I knew I had to get there. With my favorite dinner buddies in tow, we managed to find Cucina Rusticana in one piece – but not without going on a small tour of Makati’s side streets in the process.
When you step into Cucina Rusticana, an overwhelming sense of being at home comes over you. Maybe it’s the warm lighting, the quiet interiors or the hidden location, but I think that some of Cucina Rusticana’s charm has to do with the very accommodating and talented Chef JJ Viel, and his sous chef, John Ross Javier.
Growing up in what he describes as a typical Italian household, JJ’s father, who hails from Pordenone, Italy, was the first to introduce him to his passion for the culinary arts. “At Cucina Rusticana, we wanted to kill the idea of a typical Italian resto, that is, the Americanized idea of Italian food,” Chef JJ explains, which includes the requisite red and white checkered tablecloths. “As you know, Cucina Rusticana translates to ‘rustic kitchen,’ and that is exactly the kind of experience we want to give our diners.” Each recipe included in the menu comes from the Viel family, with heirloom recipes passed down from JJ’s own Nonna. Cucina Rusticana’s location used to be a frame house, and JJ was the caterer for their grand opening. The owners liked the food so much, they told his father that JJ should be a chef. Cucina Rusticana opened some time after, and the rest is history.
The Spinacci Al Formaggio (P285) is a very hearty four cheese dip, made with fresh spinach and bell peppers. I highly suggest that you order this when you come here. Unlike most cheese dips that leave you dizzy afterward, Chef JJ’s version is very mild, with the exception of a small dash of lemon to make it perfetto. The dip is so good and plentiful that you’ll be asking for extra bread in no time!
The Gallina Alla Parmigiana (P270 a la carte/P395 to share) is a dish that is both hearty and fresh at the same time. If you’re wondering how two completely different qualities can be reconciled, the fresh Parmesan cream sauce paired perfectly with the tender chicken and stuffed to the brim with spinach does the job.
“When people dine here, I think they underestimate the size of our servings,” Chef JJ says with a chuckle. “That’s because we adopt the country style of cooking, with country-style servings to match!”
I must admit that the combined forces of D, Anna and I were no match for this dish, and there was still a lot more where that came from.
PS: You can either have your meals with rice or their Parmesan Potato Mash (P85), and I highly recommend the latter!
Osso Buco (P420 a la carte/P690 to share)
“Our osso buco takes three hours to cook!” says Chef JJ, laying a massive plate of beef shank bathed in tomato sauce in front of us. “It’s really a labor of love.” He points knowingly to the bone marrow. “That’s the part that people fight over!” Not to miss out, I took a hefty, fat-filled scoop of the bone marrow with the tomato sauce and my eyes rolled back in my head from the sheer gustatory pleasure of this dish. The meat is tender and fresh, and falls off the bone when you slice it. Remembering what Chef JJ said about the servings, I wondered if there was still enough room in my stomach to partake of dessert.
Italian Riviera (P65), Luce del Sole (P75), Dolce Rica (P75)
Aside from having a great selection of food, Cucina Rusticana has a wide range of cocktails to wash down your meals with. We chose these cheerful, summery mocktails that night to combat the heat. The Italian Riviera is a blue lemonade (D’s), the Luce del Sole is Cucina Rusticana’s homage to classic lemonade (Anna’s), and the Dolce Rica (mine) is a citrus-based drink with fresh apple chunks in it. I’m definitely coming back to try the other drinks!
Tiramisu (P95 Piccolo/P130 Regolare), Mango Cream Pie (P95), Chocolate Rhum Panna Cotta (P90)
“You guys better have room for dessert!” insisted Chef JJ, as he presented the house specials to us. The Tiramisu is specially made with Savoiardi sponge cookies, coffee liquor and heavy cream – in a word, not for the weight watchers. The Mango Cream Pie was rich and the tartness of the mango slices added a refreshing twist to the dessert. Still, hands down, my favorite was the Chocolate Rhum Panna Cotta.
“It’s like eating a gourmet chocolate sundae!” –Anna
Indeed it is. You pour the piping hot chocolate rhum sauce on your panna cotta as desired and enjoy. I’m not much of a sweet tooth but I can never say no to good panna cotta. Even on its own, the panna cotta is delicious. I swear to Glob, that chocolate sauce is deceptive- it'll get you tipsy if you drink too much!
Overall, our experience at Cucina Rusticana was one for the books. If you’re looking for an authentic Italian experience but are sick of all the big chain restos in the metro, making the trip to Cucina Rusticana is absolutely, absolutely worth the journey.
Cucina Rusticana is located at 9531 Akle St. Cor. Kamagong St. San Antonio Village, 1203 Makati.
(all photos taken by Dean Africa.)