Italian cuisine 'at the table'

Italian cuisine 'at the table' 
By: Walter Ang
October 4, 2000
Philippine Daily Inquirer

A Tavola is an Italian restaurant that sits at the corner of the Ortigas and Santolan intersection. Inside, a dining area of yellow walls, red bricks, and small, intimate tables greet the patron. Owner and chef Hazel Lu Galvez designed the interiors so because, "I wanted it to have a Tuscan feel, a bright and happy feel to it."

As I sit down to have a chat with her, she translates the name of her restaurant, "At the table." She confides however, that she will be changing the name of the restaurant soon. As it turns out, even though she was granted the name when she applied for it, there are around three other restaurants with the same name or variations thereof.

After graduating from the University of the Philippines, Hazel worked in investment banking for a while. She was bored with her job and finally decided to do what she really wanted: cook. Even when she was younger, she loved to cook and did experiments on weekends. "My younger sister would be my guinea pig for the concoctions," she recounts. Hazel left her job, surfed the internet for a suitable cooking school, found one, packed her bags and flew off to Italy.

For four months, she attended the Cotstigliole d' Asti. Three months of studying and a month of practical application working in a restaurant. "It's different from cooking schools in the States where students learn different kinds of cuisines over many months. In Italy, you learn only the local cuisine in a short period of time," explains this lady who originally hails from Cotabato.

After completing the course, she had wanted to stay in Italy longer. She'd been told that her visa would be extended there, but no dice, she had to come back home. "The bureaucratic red tape over there is, unfortunately, very similar to ours," she observes. Hazel was planning to return to Italy to study further, but her then boyfriend (now husband), convinced her to stay a while and give Manila a try.

Exploring new tastes
Hazel always knew she wanted to open a restaurant, so she immediately started scouting for possible venues. She tried the malls first, but eventually spotted an old rattan furniture shop that she transformed into what it is now. This chef points out that the area may not be ready for this kind of cuisine. She explains most Pinoys are used to the Spanish influence in our local cuisine and, to a certain extent, French influence, "But that's why I want people to try the food, to try Italian cuisine, so they can learn more about it."

Things seem to be working out pretty well. She's already had repeat customers since opening only in May this year, including families with young children. "It's great when families come in. Kids try the food and they like it. If you don't tell kids spaghetti sauce should be sweet, they're very willing to try new tastes."

Hazel wants to share what she's learned about the cuisine and dispels the myth popular among Pinoys that Italian cuisine should be sour, a misconception grounded on the tomato based dishes. "People think tomatoes should be sour, but in Italy, they use vine ripened tomatoes and those are sweet. They're not the least bit acidic."

To educate more palates and to keep them coming back, the menu is changed every six weeks. Of course, customer favorites end up staying on the menu. Seafood dishes are popular and so is the gelato, a frozen desert this chef makes from scratch. People seem as eager to learn about the cuisine, evidenced by jampacked evenings when Hazel has to sometimes seat diners at the bar and even turn away a few unlucky ones. She confesses, "When the restaurant is full, we're running around and it's hard work, but we don't get tired. It feels great."

A Tavola is at Unit 5 Madrigal Bldg. Santolan Road, corner Ortigas Avenue. It's open for lunch until 2PM and for dinner until 10PM. They're closed on Mondays.