At Large

Italian food by way of California


Opening a 10th store is a milestone by any reckoning, more so in the hyper-competitive and fickle world of restaurants. How many times has one driven through a busy street or strolled through a mall and remarked on a number of new fast-food or fine-dining establishments, only to note a few months later the missing marquee of a restaurant that had closed, or even the new logo of an entirely different outlet in its place?

To survive, I suppose, a restaurant has to have a loyal clientele who will patronize it time and again. But to find that loyal clientele, a restaurant needs a good location with lots of foot traffic, an appealing concept, appetizing food, and a management that ensures things run efficiently both in the kitchen and the “front of the house.”

Maybe that’s the secret of California Pizza Kitchen, better known as “CPK,” which recently opened its 10th restaurant on Bonifacio High Street. Arriving late for the press launch, I found a father and daughter inquiring at the door if they could have lunch there. Sorry, they were told, the event was only for the media. But I wasn’t surprised that the pair would find their way to CPK’s door since, in the 15 years it’s been here, the restaurant chain has developed a reputation for its “California-style” Italian cuisine.

There is no shortage of Italian eateries in the Philippines, some of them even owned and managed by genuine Italians. I’m sure they would raise their eyebrows at the very idea of a “Californication” of their world-famous cuisine, especially of the staples with which they have gifted the world: pizza, pasta and salads.

But it seems that Filipinos like the idea—and taste—of modified Italian cuisine. After all, we have learned to eat and like all sorts of variations of pizza and spaghetti, from cheap pizza topped with little more than tomato sauce and salami, to “sweet, Filipino-style” spaghetti filled with hotdogs and clumpy cheese.

* * *

One surprising thing about Filipino taste, or at least the taste of CPK customers, says Archie Rodriguez, CEO of Global Restaurant Concepts Inc. which brought CPK here, is how strong an appeal salads hold. “When we started,” he says, “our menu was dominated by pizzas because we thought that’s what our customers liked. But through the years, we have expanded the menu to include more salads which now make up about 30 percent of our offerings.”

Some of the salads, as well as the pastas and pizzas, are original creations of the local CPK management and kitchen crew. But Rodriguez says the menu has been built around the “core offerings” of the original CPK that opened in Beverly Hills in 1985. This includes the ever-popular “BBQ Chicken” pizza and the Crunchy Thai Salad.

One difference in the new CPK branch at The Fort is that it is smaller than the outlets they began with. “We discovered that scaling down our restaurants allowed us to open more branches much more quickly,” says Rodriguez. Griffith Go, CFO of GRCI, notes that the interiors follow trendy restaurant interiors abroad, such as “communal tables and lots of wood.” So don’t expect the new CPK to look like something straight out of “The Godfather.”

* * *

The spirit moved me enough to decide to attend the recent Christmas gathering of Maryknoll College High School Class ’72, otherwise known as “The Rotten Apples.”

Well, maybe you could call us the “Aging Apples,” too, as we counted white hair and flat shoes, which in our younger years we would have shunned as insufficiently sexy. One of us, Mayanne Eduque Velhagen, even came in crutches and a fashionable boot of plaster cast and insulation. She had broken her foot on a vacation to Palawan, and set off spirited discussions about fragile bones and delayed healing.

Gok Dula Asence, the president of our alumnae class since 2009, managed to gather more than 20 of us classmates in the La Vista home of Stella Lanuza, for an affair that included the usual games and exchange of gifts plus an update on our class fund-raising activities and where the money was going.

Aside from the gifts we were exchanging, we were also asked to bring school supplies for children living with cancer in Batangas, where Tess Medrano Ganzon, who used to be our class president, helps manage a rural bank with her husband. Tess works closely with an organization of “Cancer Warriors,” and through the years has helped mount an annual Christmas gathering for the young brave survivors and their families.

* * *

Reporting on our fund-raising efforts, Gok, Miam Balingit Ocampo and Cristy Aspiras had very good news to share. Our total “haul” was a little over P2.5 million, the bulk of which was a corporate donation by Meralco, chaired of course by MVP, or Manny Pangilinan.

The P2 million was turned over to the Maryknoll Adult Education program which through the years has allowed adults (mostly women, including some grandmothers) to finish their high school education, and later added vocational training courses such as automotive maintenance and culinary arts. Since many of the students at the adult education program are either house help or self-employed, they still struggle to meet the very reasonable tuition that Miriam College charges. Our P2 million fund will thus go a long way toward creating scholarships and enabling more students to finish their education and find better-paying jobs.

The rest of the fund is being donated to the Maryknoll Sisters, with all of us agreeing to use the money toward the care of elderly nuns in both the Philippines and in the Mother House in New York.

It was a night of nostalgia mixed with revelry, but it also felt good to know that in getting together, we had also ended up doing good.

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Tags: At Large , California Pizza Kitchen , CPK , food , Maryknoll , opinion , Rina Jimenez-David

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