Pizza in Manila: Nuccio's

Ladies and gents, my homeslices, every now and then one of you writes in with reviews and info about far-flung pizzerias that are way out of the range of typical Slice coverage. Today, we've got such an item for you. Mark Cohen, who lives part of the year in Manila, submitted a couple dispatches about some pizzerias in the Philippines. Here's the first of his reports. —The Mgmt.

Words and photographs by Mark Cohen | I grew up in the New York City area and lived there until I left for college. I was a typical New York pizza freak—except that, at the ripe old age of 12, I was making pizza out of the box, learning to work with dough (Chef Boyardee for those who remember). By the time I was 23, I was making pizza from scratch and was fortunate enough to work for a master pizzaiolo in the best pizza place in San Francisco in the late '60s, early '70s. My mentor hailed from the Naples area and was a great cook all around, so I learned from the best.

To this day, I bake pizzas and calzones every Friday night at home using flour, tomatoes, and mozzarella from Italy. I never use U.S. flour; in my opinion, it does not compare to Italian flour—nor do the pelati (tomatoes). The fresh mozzarella in the U.S. is a fine substitute for Italian fior d'latte or mozzarella di bufala, however.

Why am I telling you this? Because, much of the year, I live in Manila, Philippines. And, when I first arrived here, I naturally sought out every promising pizzeria to see what the city had to offer. There actually are more than you'd imagine, but until about five years ago, there was not one good pizza place in the country—at least not anything a New Yorker worth his salt would accept as good. But about ten years ago, a few Italians started opening up restaurants and the grade of pizza started to improve and change the pizza landscape. The fact that there is an experienced importer of Italian foods and pantry products in Manila has a lot to do with the availability of the ingredients necessary to make superior pizza. When Italians do food outside Italy, they import Italian products to meet their needs. This guarantees that, at a very minimum, the quality of the pizza will be at least good. But the issue remains turning these ingredients into a great pizza.

As of today, there are probably 20 places in all of Manila that make at least good pizza. There are only a few, however, that truly rise to the top when applying international standards. I have written a review of two such places; they are two of my favorite pizzerias, and I frequent both on a regular basis. Both produce a top-quality Naples–style pizza with a light layer of cheese. Both have adapted well to the availability of ingredients and pizzaioli to produce a delicious and consistent product.

Nuccio’s Pizzeria

Nuccio’s is a one-year-old pizzeria and spaghetteria in Makati City, the financial hub of Manila and the country. It is a large, open, informal setting with glass walls to the street on two sides, allowing lots of light and creating an almost outdoor feeling. It's a fun place to go, especially when owner Nuccio Saverio is there to greet you. He is as good as a host gets and will make anything for you the way you want, if he can, and is always ready to recommend something special or fresh.

For a pizza oven, Saverio turned to Italy and imported an exotic and beautiful wood-burning brick oven that he assembled himself. He uses local hardwood that is suitably dried. As with all wood-burning ovens used in restaurants that are open seven days a week, the embers never die, just rest overnight.

Saverio was fortunate to hire a young Filipino pizzaiolo who had worked at another famous pizzeria in town and who was well versed on dough-making and stretching. He uses a rolling pin to ensure that the dough is evenly thin and perfectly round in shape, which he does with skill and speed.

The flour is Italian "Tipo 00 per pizza" (type double zero for pizza). There is no better flour for gluten development and taste that I have ever experienced, and I have tried the best the U.S. has to offer. It is all I use personally. The sauce is a prepared mix imported from Italy and produced by "Covina," a leading Italian peeled-tomato and pantry-product manufacturer. Covina tomatoes are also available, but Saverio prefers the preblended sauce for its ease, balance, and taste. Early on, I was able to detect too much acidity, but Saverio eventually added some sugar and the sauce became sublime. He uses a good-quality mozzarella from Australia since whole-milk mozzarella, whether imported or local, is too expensive for the pizza market because of inherent price restrictions. It melts well and has a pleasing taste and texture. He tops it off with oregano on the way into the oven and adds fresh basil and olive oil when it comes out. The pizza bakes in about three minutes in the blazing-hot wood-burning oven, and of course has that wonderful smokey crust that we all have come to appreciate and love.

A basic 12-inch Margherita and other varieties run about $7—a little more with prosciutto, mushrooms, artichokes, etc. It is a great value no matter what you order. The pastas, if you're interested, run about $4 to $5, which is phenomenal, and you can get a fresh salad if you ask. All and all, this has become one of the best Italian eateries in Manila—the place Italians go for food and to meet other Italians, where people in the know go to eat great pizza and pasta. If in Manila, be sure to visit.