Text and photos by ELIZABETH LOLARGA
BACK in the years when dynamic cultural administrators produced free outdoor performances, from poetry readings to full orchestra concerts,Paco Park was a destination for the culturati and the hoi polloi.
These days, one thinks of Paco as mere passageway to get to busier Taft Avenue or the Malate district where the night life is alive.
But Paco has a place in Manila’s and the nation’s history, the cemetery turned park being the resting place of those who succumbed to the cholera epidemic in 1820. It was where national hero Jose Rizal’s body was first buried after he was shot at Luneta in 1896. His remains were eventually moved to the spot where his monument stands at Rizal Park in 1913.
In his out-of-print “mini-encyclopedia,” Almanac for Manileños, the late National Artist Nick Joaquin cited past chronicles that referred to Paco as “a place for great devotion.” He was not off the mark when he also wrote that the district is a preferred site for inns and taverns today as it was in its heyday.
The old Swiss Inn, renowned for its European sausages, is still standing there.
All that makes Paco deserving of more than a glimpse from a vehicle’s window on the way to somewhere else.
It is worth at least half a day’s pause, even more now that it is where My Kitchen, which has gained a buzz among food lovers, is located on Belen street. That puts it just a few meters’ walk from the park.
The restaurant on the ground level of the modest Oasis Hotel is past the swimming pool. It serves authentic Italian food in generous portions. These man-size servings are best savored with company.
Otherwise, the solo diner will find herself/himself lugging home a big paper bag of leftovers. At the current prices in the menu, it’s also advisable to bring in a bevy of senior citizens to avail of mandatory discount or go KKB (kanya-kanyang bayad or Dutch).
One can go wild with the lengthy choice of panizzas—think super-thin crust pizza, crisp to the bite and presented as a big rectangle dish sliced into long strips. Take a strip (don’t be shy about using your hands), then roll it with an additional filling of fresh leaves of arugula and alfalfa sprouts taken from a separate bowl.
The panizzas go by proper names of Cristina, Stefano, Paolo Miguel, Don Carmelo, etc. And since one is in Paco (it’s said the district got its name from St. Francis of Assisi and Paco is the diminutive of Francisco), panizza Paco is recommended. Like the others, it has abundantly colorful toppings of sliced herb chicken fillet, smoked bacon, portabello, golden mushrooms, capers and kalamata olives.
Nearly the same ingredients can be found in the Oasis Salad, but artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, caramelized sun-dried tomatoes are also thrown in with the romaine and arugula lettuce.
Again the salad is for sharing, and this is where the service staff is efficient in bringing out the extra plate or bowl for someone who’d like to taste her dining companion’s Ribollita soup. The latter is thickened and enriched by white beans, ham hock, salted bacon, Parmesan cheese, herbs and assorted vegetables—a meal in itself.
When the roast salmon and spaghetti marinara are brought in, expect the pitch of the conversation over the meal to register several notes higher and the camaraderie to become more spirited as each one takes her turn to dig in.
One imagines herself amidst a loud, robust Italian family get-together, whether in Tuscany or Bologna, with the men folk smacking their lips to signify appreciation of the cook’s efforts or calling out for more wine, the women fussing over the children or wiping their hands on well-worn aprons.
A near-perfect Italian meal like this is incomplete without making a selection from the Dolce (sweets) list. At My Kitchen, it might be wiser to call a day ahead to check if the choice is wider than what was available on the day of one’s visit.
At that time, it was a toss-up between lemon lime cheesecake and tiramisu. Go for the heesecake. It’s topped with shaved almonds while its sugary crust can be a separate cookie in itself. So rich is the crust that one is forced to eat more slowly to savor it and prevent a sugar rush.
Nothing less than a demitasse of espresso caps a meal like this. If you’re groaning from the carbohydrate load of three kinds of panizza plus pasta, the best remedy is to walk off the lethargy, cross over (attraversare as Julia Roberts immortalized the Italian word in the movie version of Eat Pray Love) and stroll among the benign ghosts of Paco Park.