The truck slowly turned behind the stone church and onto a dark, dusty road. Past a few closed hardware shops lit by single lights, a fishing pond reflecting the nearby glow of the city’s infant nightclubs, and the occasional sari-sari store decked with industrial-size speakers blasting some obscure, bass heavy tempo.
Lines like these would have been (in my rather unpolished writing) passable introductions to crime thrillers or some Zimmern-esque travelogue about to detail the search for some grotesque delicacy enjoyed by a dying tribe in the mountains. But that’s a story reserved for another post. Instead, we were headed to the rather unassumingly named, “Chicago-Style”, a small pizzeria marked by an equally unassuming neon sign. It’s the type of place one wouldn’t hesitate driving past in search for the more popular Shakey’s or Pizza Hut or would only turn to in times of need.
But in that little building away from the busy city center, lies perhaps the most authentic Chicago-style pizza one could find in Iloilo and perhaps the entire Panay island. But having been repeatedly grossed out by other oft-raved about establishments like Afrique’s with their adulterated Italian fare mixed with condensed milk to suit the local palate, I felt more skepticism than appetite.
My heart sank when we entered the door. The small eatery that would have barely held 30 people was completely deserted save for the staff (who I later found out were a ragtag gang of Church volunteers, choir singers, and acolytes…a great way to keep the youth out of trouble!). At prime dinner hours, it was a bad sign. The Lovecraft-ian artwork on the wall was bizarre to say the least. Resignation sat in my stomach as I sat in the booth. We had been invited by the local parish priest who owned the establishment and I wasn’t about to turn down such an invitation lest I offend the powers above. A priest who runs a pizza shop? Then again…stranger things have happened on this trip.
A hint of curiosity crept in as I skimmed the menu. References to the Windy City were plentiful: the John Hancock Building, Ballpark Hot Dogs, Pizzeria Uno. But the cynic in me dismissed them as nothing more than a simple Google Search con cut-and-paste job. The food must have been pre-ordered by the priest as the waiter quickly set down 4 bowls of Minestrone soup with the local favorite Skyflakes instead of the usual oyster crackers. I smirked remembering an old TV show starring Gordon Ramsey of Hell Kitchen fame where he crushes a chef for serving powdered Minestrone soup. I sighed and lifted the spoon up to my mouth.
And then it happened. This was either some really good imitation powder…or it was made from scratch. The celery had crunch, the tomatoes were visible, and the broth was light and well-seasoned unlike the artery-constricting, salty garbage one finds at the local deli or the diluted abomination smaller establishments serve to stretch the dollar. Jesus may have turned water into wine, but no way this sort of place could churn out such a bowl of Minestrone far from nonna’s kitchen. I polished the bowl within seconds as my curiosity grew…have I perhaps been wrong? Did I, a small-time food blogger, discover a culinary find overlooked by the all the glitzy travel and food blogs touting the ritzier restaurants? I had hoped so.
The pizza came next. A deep dish pizza that looked and smelled like the real thing. Verdant peppers, shiny onions, pepperoni that managed to avoid looking like some cancerous growth, and plump Italian sausage chunks that were thankfully devoid of cheap extenders. The cheese was just the right amount, though of a weird yellow hue, and a cursory glance of the underside showed no signs of the Pizza Hut oil spill my mom’s grown accustomed to mopping up with a handful of napkins. My mom suggested we wait for our priest but curiosity (and in my family’s case, hunger) trumped social constraint and we each grabbed a slice and poured some hot sauce on it.
3 bites in and all skepticism was dispelled. The crust, made of whole wheat dough, was thick with a slight chewiness. Though the pizza wasn’t as thick as it could’ve been (it didn’t need a knife and fork to eat), it held the toppings well. The sausage had a nice spice to it and wasn’t at all like the overly salty mush I’ve had. The hot sauce was a surprise: spicy with a hint of the local vinegar. 3 bites was all I took as our parish priest walked in.
Father Espiridion Celis, or Father Boy (ahh yes…the coveted Filipino nickname of “Boy”, reserved only for the most epicurean of all men), was the sole proprietor of this fine joint. I found out later that he spent more than a decade in Chicago teaching, working as an IT consultant, and living a life of faith. It was here where he learned how to make the Chicago deep-dish pizza from someone who used to work at the famous Pizzeria Uno.
In between bites, I peppered him with my checklist of questions: was the Minestrone made from scratch? Yes. Is the dough made from scratch? Yes. And on and on it went, everything seemingly made from scratch from the Italian sausage to the sauce. Quality that could easily compete with the best pizzerias in America. The mozzarella, though now store-bought due to Fr. Boy’s wish to keep prices affordable, used to be house-made with real buffala milk! Something we New Yorkers are hard-pressed in finding! The man before us, in a simple white T-shirt and graying hairs, may have moments before been caught up in a passionate sermon on the pulpit, but tonight was serving up God-sent authenticity in a land that valued artificial flavorings.
So to recount: we had in front of us, a nearly made-from-scratch pizza, soup, and undoubtedly a menu of other items whose quality was just as good. Why in the world was it located on some dimly lit back road and not on the main thoroughfare of Smallville where all the youth and cash was walking around ready to be spent? Fr. Boy, in a knowing smile marked with years of hard work, wisdom, and a hint of the divine (or was the crust playing tricks on my mind?) simply said, “We’re not ready yet.”
With the last few bites, he showed us the new menu with even more made-from-scratch items, a plan to franchise, and for my food-addled mind, a future for the Ilonggo food scene worth hoping for; a culinary culture that places value back in the quality and story of the food just as it does on the flavor. As the talk drifted on to Church politics and shenanigans, my mind wandered. Here before me, in this odd looking house, run by a Renaissance man of the cloth, on a lonely outpost in town, was something every travelling eater delights in finding: a hole-in-the-wall that lives up to its name, untouched by the crowd. I look forward to eating that pizza again and in two years time when I return, I sincerely hope that pie is as well-made and heavenly (pun obviously intended) as it was on the night a humble priest proved my cynical mind dead wrong.