Hearing the words “Italian restaurant” usually brings one thing to mind—pizza. For someone who loves bread, I’ve never developed a craving for pizza. Truth be told, the part of pizza I look forward to most is the crust. One, because it is devoid of topping and can be enjoyed as normal bread would be and, second, because by the time you get to the crust, it means you’re almost done eating. On the other hand, I love pasta, even something as simple as Aglio Oglio. If you put pasta and oil and something savory together, I’d eat it. So when a message appeared on my phone inviting me to try the food at La Spezia, I was expecting the typical—an Italian restaurant specializing in pizza, with a few pasta dishes and maybe a chicken dish or two thrown into the mix. Oh, was I mistaken.
Even before meeting Sean Yuquimpo and Aaron Shiu, I had a feeling I was in for a good meal. Sean was the one who contacted me and my impression of him was of someone who knew what he wanted but was always polite, never pushy. As someone who gets invited to a lot of restaurants, I get to meet a very mixed bunch. Some owners are extremely introverted and would shy away from questions while others won’t even let you form an opinion, they’d outright praise their own food even before they serve you the appetizers. I don’t make it a habit to research on a restaurant I’ll be trying for the very first time either. I want to be surprised, I want to remain curious, I want to form my own conclusions and not get influenced by someone else’s experience.
Finally meeting Sean and seeing their menu for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised at how short their menu was—a good sign, if you ask me. Long menus are confusing, not just for the diner, but for the kitchen. It tells me that the owners or the chef wants to please everybody, which is impossible. I’d rather eat at a place that does a few things, even just one thing really well, than a place that serves everything but done poorly. Looking at La Spezia’s menu, you are only presented a few choices for starters, a few for the first course, several options for the mains and then a couple of desserts. Their repertoire was simple, focused and, most important, for me at least—it had no pizza anywhere on the list. There are a few classics, mainstays in most Italian places, must-haves if you will. But most dishes in the menu are quite uniquely theirs, at least I haven’t seen them in the places I’ve been to or at least not the same combinations. The menu is definitely Italian, but in no way like the run-of-the-mill places. It’s as if they were serving proper Italian dishes, rather than snacks, which is how I perceive most Italian restos. In Filipino, totoong pagkain, real food.
I came to La Spezia with my friend and fellow foodie Joy Cruz. Since we knew we couldn’t really try everything in one go, we let Sean and Aaron pick what to serve, thinking they’d know best. They suggested we start with their Burrata (buffalo mozzarella), followed by Spaghetti Alle Vongole Veraci (clams with peppers) and Pollo Impanato (sous vide chicken breasts with couscous). Being gracious hosts, they asked us if we wanted anything else, and being the glutton that I am, I requested for another pasta dish, the Pasta al Tartufo (truffle pasta). So with orders taken and cravings fulfilled, we proceeded with our chat with Sean while Aaron prepared our meal.
The partnership behind La Spezia started years ago, in school during orientation at Enderun. The two became friends since then and have never looked back. Between internships at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and Asia and continuing education at Les Roches in Switzerland, the miles apart only strengthened their friendship and plans to someday go into business together were hatched. Like a lot of Filipino-Chinese, they were met with skepticism by their conservative parents. But with steely determination and a solid plan backed up by talent and hard work, their plan materialized into what is La Spezia today. Their choice of cuisine was instant and mutual. With their experience all over Europe, they each had Italian in mind for their new project. La Spezia is a port city, the gateway to the picturesque Cinque Terre, the five towns where a number of seaside villages are nestled in the Italian Riviera. As La Spezia serves as a gateway to the beautiful Cinque Terre, Sean and Aaron wanted their new restaurant to be just the same, to serve as an introduction to the splendor and diversity of Italian cuisine.
Back to our meal, our Burrata was creamy and luscious as I expected. What I didn’t expect was the addition of grilled corn to the usual tomato and basil. This isn’t traditional but the addition of the sweet and smoky corn to the rest of the components enhanced the dish. This is a common theme in La Spezia’s food, very traditional Italian cooking, authentic ingredients, plus the addition of something creative that still keeps the soul of the cuisine but adds, or dare I say, improves on the dishes. The pasta dishes that followed were both great, as with the juicy chicken and couscous spiked with chopped raw onions which was new for me. Again, it showed of their adherence to tradition without being rigid and repetitive. I was actually too full for dessert but their Camicia Pear with Gelato proved to be a nice and tart palate cleanser.
The sign of a true food lover is talking about the next meal even when you haven’t finished what you’re eating. If that were true, then planning our next visit to La Spezia while we haven’t left yet is a pretty good indicator of how much we loved their food. True foodies that we were, less than a week since our first visit, we were back, and this time with some reinforcement. On our second trip to La Spezia, we were there to try more of their Secondi, the second courses—the mains. We were joined by none other than Chef Sandy Daza, my childhood cooking hero and, like us, a fan of La Spezia. Just as Joy and I, Chef Sandy also didn’t have space to try the main dishes on his first visit but was impressed by what he got to try. So as repeat visitors, we went back and were served a few of La Spezia’s heavy hitters. We started a bit light, with Pollo alla Parmigiana (chicken parmesan) and then came the Stinco de Agnello (lamb shanks). Yes, lamb is still considered light for us. For the main, main event, we had Bistecca alla Fiorentina, 1 kilogram of choice US beef goodness. And as if that wasn’t enough, our “sides” of Polenta Fritta (fried polenta with cheese) and Risotto con Piselli e Pancetta (pea and cured pork risotto) made sure we’d be stuffed to the gills.
Needless to say, each dish was fantastic, cooked and seasoned well, with creative touches that add to the enjoyment without deviating from what Italian food is. As young as Sean and Aaron are, I can’t help but admire the direction they’ve chosen and that they’ve executed this well. I see them as a pair who know who they are, what their goals are and, more important, how to reach those goals. Being complimentary in their strengths and being realistic with their aspirations also keep the business side of things in check. Only in their mid-20s, there’s so much to look forward to for these two young restaurateurs. I can only wait in anticipation at what they’ll come up with next. Until then, I’ll be at La Spezia and enjoy their food every chance I get.
La Spezia is at 90 Dr. Lazcano Street Laging Handa, Quezon City.